Prison farm beds might be needed again to house prisoners

ANCHORAGE — A company providing research and data analysis to the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission said if nothing is done to reduce the inmate population in Alaska, more than a hundred beds not being used as a cost-saving measure at a prison farm will need to be put back into service.

Terry Schuster, Pew Charitable Trusts senior associate for the Public Safety Performance Project, said if additional reforms are not put in place, the prison population will outpace the state’s ability to house inmates. The 128 beds at the Point MacKenzie Correctional Farm will be needed to house prisoners, the Alaska Dispatch News reported.

State officials earlier this year asked the commission to come up with legislative and budgetary recommendations for the legislature to reduce prison spending. The recommendations, which will include ways to increase public safety, will be released in December.

Schuster shared his plan with a crowd of people who help prisoners readjust to public life during a meeting in downtown Anchorage last week. He also shared it previously at a legislative hearing in September and a workshop at this year’s Alaska Federation of Native conference.

“In 2017, the prison population surpasses the state’s ability to house them. At that point, the solution for housing would be reopening a facility that has been closed,” he said. “By the following year, 2018, the population would have passed that additional capacity, and at that point the easiest solution would be sending inmates out of state.”

However, the Department of Corrections does not consider Point MacKenzie a closed facility. Spokeswoman Sherrie Daigle said the farm “remains fully functional,” although the 128 beds at the facility are not being used to save $2.5 million.

Inmates were housed at the facility, where they tended vegetables and livestock, up until early last year. Now, inmate workers are transported back and forth by bus from the Goose Creek Correctional Center, another jail in the borough.

Alaska used to send about 1,050 prisoners out-of-state until Goose Creek opened in 2012. But it’s estimated that 1,400 prison beds will be needed to meet projected demand over the next decade. The cost of putting prisoners back at Point MacKenzie and housing Alaska inmates in other states is expected to cost $169 million over a 10-year period.

“That is the cost of doing nothing. That price tag is the continued growth. The state isn’t doing nothing. The Legislature, the governor’s office and others have identified this as a priority area for examination. The criminal justice commission has been formed (and) has been meeting and developing policy options,” Schuster said.

Daigle said the DOC does not have plans to use the open beds or start sending prisoners out of state. She said the agency is considering other options to reduce the inmate population, including placing inmates who qualify on electric monitoring or in a halfway house.

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