Heidi Zemach for SCN
Spring Creek Correctional Center, located near Fourth of July subdivision at the end of Nash Road in Seward, will continue to see some significant changes, particularly in the staffing of correctional officers and in its overall focus, beginning July 1st, the date of the new state budget fiscal year. As a result of the changes, Seward could see an influx of new workers and their families coming here to live, while also losing some families in the shuffle.
Spring Creek is Seward’s largest full-time employer, providing jobs for as many as 200 staff members. It has the capacity of holding over 500 male inmates, but is currently running about 37 beds below capacity, however, much to the state prison administration’s chagrin.
The prison has experienced some major changes over the last few years, such as loosing its furniture factory in March of 2010, and its Youth Offender Program Spring Creek School following graduation last month, in order to transfer to Anchorage, and the retirement of Assistant Superintendent Tom Reimer April 30, to name just a few.
The state correction’s department has “reshuffled the deck” at Spring Creek, and six of its 12 other prison facilities in order to be as efficient and lean as possible as it opens its newly-constructed $240 million Goose Creek facility located in the Mat-Su Borough, said Alaska Department of Corrections Commissioner Joe Schmidt.
The new staffing model, that took effect July 1, calls for an increase in the number of officers that work an eight-hour shift, and restructures the prisons’ staffing pattern at night. This shift gets rid of the one week on/one week off shifts for corrections officers that enabled many of them to live in Anchorage, and to commute to their jobs in Seward every other week. Just two years ago, as many as half of those correctional officers did so for a number of reasons: because their spouses already had jobs in their career fields, and could not find good jobs in Seward, or they had purchased homes elsewhere and did not want to move their families to Seward; or because they had difficulty affordable homes here, according to longtime prison Superintendent Craig Turnbull, who could not be reached for comment for this article. A result was that the prison experienced high turnover of new staff, and became known within the prison system statewide as a training facility for new corrections officers, who benefited from the expert tutelage of Turnbull, before transferring elsewhere. The officers that commuted often bunked together in cheap trailers, homes or shared rental accommodations while they were working.
“We knew this facility was going to be challenging because many people commute, and so we delayed the implementation until July 1, while we did the other ones in May,” said Schmidt, while visiting Seward recently. “There’s a bunch of folks that wanted to transfer to the valley from here, and those transfers are complete. Meanwhile we’re back-filling with people that we’re hiring to work eight-hour jobs. So those that are not fond of the eight-hour shift, will hopefully, in a relatively -short period of time, come to work knowing that it’s an eight-hour shift.” Some Seward families here also have chosen to move to the valley for new positions there.
Schmidt began his career in corrections 25 years ago, first working at a half-way house in Seward, and then at Spring Creek, while living in Anchorage. “I feel the pain, I know exactly what the correctional officers are thinking,” he said, “but I also know that even back then, people not living in the community was an issue. The community felt like they put the building up and it never really came to fruition as far as community development.”
On the other hand; “the state doesn’t build prisons to develop communities, or because it wants to,” he said, “It builds prisons because it has to.” And although, the administration didn’t change the shifts to force people to live in Seward, that may be one of the side effects of the new model, he said.
The fact that the prison provides a large stable, full-time work force benefits the Seward community in several ways, according to Alyssa Shanks, an Alaska economist for the Alaska Department of Labor. Good jobs brings stability that other businesses can rely on to keep people in the area, and provides a workforce with disposable income that will use their goods and services, she said. Local schools also can count on their children to attend, which helps with their staffing and budgeting. The city also receives utilities and taxes from the prison. A greater percentage of prison employees living here should likewise help bolster the local economy.
The department has been recruiting for both for the Goose Creek, and Spring Creek facilities together, and has completed the first few rounds of recruitments, Schmidt said. But as of last week, he could not yet say how many permanent jobs had been filled at Spring Creek. He just hopes it will all happen soon, and to everyone’s satisfaction.
Meanwhile, Spring Creek Youth Offenders Program, a part of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District just graduated its last six students from the unique prison high school, and closed its doors after 13 years, having graduated a grand total of 200 young offenders aged 22 and younger either with high school diplomas or GEDs. That program, born and developed in Seward, will be transfered to the Anchorage Correctional Complex, a pre-trial facility where as many as 30-32 students can attend the school at one time. Longtime Seward teaching-couple Mary Alice and Gary Blount retired, after 11 years at the Spring Creek school, and teacher Jennifer Swander, will mover over to Seward High School to teach English.
The transfer to Anchorage helps bring the Seward facility back to its original mission as a closed, maximum-security prison, rather than one in which young offenders, including some who have not yet been tried or sentenced, live in 60-men dorm facilities with empty beds that must nevertheless be paid for, a situation that the prison system can ill afford, Schmidt said. The Anchorage facility has dorms of all sizes, that can accommodate the number of student inmates attending the school at any given time, thus allowing more beds to be used. Also, in the Anchorage facility, the YOP participants will no longer have to spend as much as their time mingling with the more hardened, older prison population, with the exception of those in the medical unit.
Goose Creek, has successfully opened its doors to the first 30 inmates, and with the exception of some broken pipes that had to be fixed, is working out well, Schmidt said. Within 11 months, the new prison is expected to house more than minimum security 1,000 prisoners, including some 600 inmates who have been housed out of state in Hudson Colorado, at Alaska taxpayer’s expense. By September of 2013, the number will rise to about 1,450, nearing the facility’s capacity. Spring Creek, in turn, will receive the state’s maximum-security inmates, returning the prison to the type of facility for which it was originally intended.