Jen Winkelman says she knows she’s “not going to save the world” as head of Alaska’s prison system, but is hoping improved job training and stable situations will allow officers to better handle recent issues such as the high number of inmate deaths and improving the reentry process for inmates into society.
“I don’t have any control over who comes to us and how long they come to us, but where we can make a difference is on when they do leave us,” she told the Senate Judiciary Committee during a confirmation hearing on her nomination as commissioner of the state Department of Corrections.
Winkelman sailed through the confirmation hearing, with the committee advancing her nomination to the full Senate with little expressed concern about news-making issues during the past year such as the decade-high number of inmate deaths. During a subsequent overview of the department to the committee, she and other top officials detailed additional issues including structural problems at Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau that forced the east wing to be vacated and a $9.5 million supplemental budget request so repairs can be made as quickly as possible.
The Juneau resident has been a department employee since 2001, primarily in probation/parole duties, and was named acting commissioner last year when then-Commissioner Nancy Dahlstrom was named Dunleavy’s running mate for lieutenant governor.
“When the governor asked me to step into this commissioner’s role it was an easy yes for a couple of different reasons,” Winkelman said. “I would say the most significant factor is that because I believe in this work, and the work is supported by the governor and the Legislature.”
Winkelman, while detailing her resume and personal background, noted her husband retired after 30 years in the corrections department as a correctional and probation officer.
“We get a couple of raised eyebrows when our kids tell their friends their mom and dad met in jail,” she said.
The nominee offered an overview of the department’s recent struggles during her opening statement, noting that of the deaths last year 11 were of natural causes and seven were deaths by suicide. She said there has been a significant increase in suicides in the state, with the rate in communities and correctional facilities essentially the same, and “while we have an unhealthy and quite vulnerable population, we look every day to do things better than we did before.”
“We screen every individual to see if there is a risk,” she said. “Unfortunately individuals with years of trauma and substance abuse do not share everything.”
Correctional facilities have installed “jump barriers” recently and improved visibility in areas that can be monitored as part of the effort to reduce the problem, Winkelman said.
Another difficult to solve problem is the staffing shortage, and ensuring those employees are well-trained and satisfied with their living situations, she said. The corrections department currently has a 13% vacancy rate, but the numbers vary enormously by location — the Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward has a 40% vacancy rate, for instance, while the Goose Creek Correctional Center in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley is fully staffed, meaning at times some of the latter employees are assigned to fill critical needs at the facility to the south.
In addition to simply hiring more workers — which isn’t so simple given the widespread workforce challenges employers are facing — providing addition incentives such as more housing in the areas correctional facilities are located in will help stabilize the shortage, Winkelman said.
Support for her nomination as commissioner was voiced by Bobby Dorton, reentry manager for Tanana Chiefs Conference, who said he has been incarcerated numerous times including serving an eight-year sentence before being released five years ago. His interactions with Winkelman occurred in her role as a probation/parole officer.
“I know Jen Winkelman will hold people responsible,” he said. “She’s very by the book and I also know the work she does affects people like myself to look up to her.”
The problems at LCCC, resulting from cracking in the walls due to water under the building causing the ground to settle, are in middle of being repaired, Winkelman explained in the overview following the confirmation hearing.
“The building is stable and they have gone in and done what they needed to do to drain water,” she said. “But the construction project to fix the walls and such will be taking place in the future.”
The $9.5 million supplemental request – meaning the funding would be added to this year’s budget rather than waiting until next year’s budget takes effect July 1, is because the state Department of Transportation is already in the process of issuing contracts for the upcoming work, said April Wilkerson, deputy commissioner of the Department of Corrections. She said discussions with the contracts include ensuring the problem doesn’t become a recurring one that could result in additional temporary or permanent relocation of inmates.
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