Alaska, Crime

Corrections Report Sheds Light on Prison Practices

Spring Creek Correctional Facility, Seward, Alaska - State of Alaska photo
Spring Creek Correctional Facility, Seward, Alaska – State of Alaska photo

By Heidi Zemach for SCN

Gov. Bill Walker recently released a 20-page report detailing some widespread failings that occurred in Alaska’s prisons and jails, and troubling patterns in the corrections system that reviewers felt need to be addressed. Walker also replaced the Alaska Corrections Commissioner with Interim Commissioner Walter Monegan lll, a former Anchorage Chief of Police and State Commissioner of Public Safety.

The interviews and independent investigation that the governor ordered took place at all 13 state prisons, including Spring Creek Correctional Center, and one community jail. While none of the high-profile deaths and stories highlighted in the report occurred at the Seward facility, experts say that the reports’ findings and recommendations, if enacted, will affect the high security prison in Seward and all the other prisons, and possibly also the community jail.

“Some may interpret this as us trying to have a coddling of the felons that are incarcerated. We’re not,” said Dean Williams, Special Assistant to Gov. Walker and one of the two leading investigators, speaking during a press conference. “This is about making sure it’s safe conditions for the corrections officers as well as those that are incarcerated.”  He said the report was merely a snapshot of Alaska’s prisons, focusing on certain high-profile cases that occurred over the course of the 18-month investigation that also indicated a systemic pattern and raised red flags. Investigators examined 22 case studies, and the report revealed a list of troubling recent prison deaths and other disturbing incidents:

An honored Alaska Native elder and war veteran who had served overseas in the National Guard was imprisoned in Juneau for “his own protection,” after drinking too much. After sobering up the next day, he suffered a heart attack. His repeated cries for medical help were ignored. His protectors had cussed him, and one allegedly told him he didn’t care if he died. Another man imprisoned in Kobuk Community Jail died of a heart condition after guards appeared to have used excessive force on him. A 20-year old mentally ill man died in prison after being arrested on a California warrant. He’d been pepper-sprayed and detained, kept naked, detained longer than he should have been, and did not receive the medical or mental health care that he needed. Four 17-year-old teenagers, who had escaped from the Kenai Youth Facility, were kept in solitary confinement for nearly a year. 

Investigators also looked closely into two deaths at Spring Creek Correctional Center, which occurred during the time of the study, according to Dean Williams. The first was the death of inmate Elihu Gillespie, who was stabbed and killed by a fellow cellmate June 29th, 2014. While troubling, that death was well-documented by the Alaska State trooper who investigated it, Williams said. Neither it, nor another Spring Creek inmate death they examined pointed to any particular systemic issues that needed addressing. The second case, he admitted, was a cold case, and rather difficult to investigate after the fact.

Williams and fellow investigator Joe Hanlon, a retired FBI agent, recommended new protocols and procedures for investigating all inmate deaths, including the creation of an independent investigation team. The team would use well-trained, experienced investigators, which, the reviewers found, they have often not been.

Former Spring Creek Superintendent Craig Turnbull file photo.
Former Spring Creek Superintendent Craig Turnbull file photo.

The report also recommends that the state develop policies and practices that guarantee that correctional officers are properly trained before assuming duty posts, and receive the required ongoing professional training and evaluation. Also, many of the important policies and procedures in place have not been updated for decades, and should be updated, they said.

“On the other issue, Solitary Confinement, I did not see any egregious cases of solitary confinement (at Spring Creek),” Wilson said. But the report does recommend that its use be limited. “We’re using segregation within DOC liberally. Other states have reduced their use of segregation, and I’m encouraging our state to do so as well.”

Another recommendation was that all staff in a prison or jail report directly to their own superintendent, rather than to the Department of Corrections. Most of the staff now report to the superintendent, while the medical staff, including nursing and mental health staff, report directly to the state corrections office. “No disrespect to them, but I would have not found that acceptable to me,” said Wilson.

Other issues raised also related to community prisons:

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“My guess is that your community jail does take in intoxicated people,” Williams said. “The report recommends that we completely re-address and develop a new plan that does not involve the prison system taking highly intoxicated into protective custody. People are going into a very dangerous place for alcohol toxicity, when they’ve committed no crime.”

Former Spring Creek Superintendent John Craig Turnbull called the governor’s new review “very fair” and said it was the most meaningful one he had seen yet. He added it “touched on some real issues that have needed to be addressed, and still do.

“Issues raised often reflect the need for the proper number of staff to be on duty. Staffing has been cut and cut and cut, and positions not filled, to the point where staff can’t get all the necessary work done, as required by policy,” Turnbull said. An officer is taking a personal risk if he has to cut corners due to inadequate staffing or training, he added: People are put in the position that they have to cut corners, or they just work all the time, miss their meal breaks and just wear themselves out. They’re all trying to get a mission accomplished and they don’t have to tools to do it.”

Turnbull began his career at Spring Creek in 1991 as a Correctional Officer, eventually rising to the position of Superintendent, a position he held for 12 years until he retired Feb 28th, 2013.  He trained generations of new COs who went on to work throughout the state prison system. His retirement came after several COs left Seward for the new Goose Creek Facility and elsewhere, and after work shift hour changes were instituted, over his objections, that many correctional officers who commuted to Seward could not manage. The DOC was looking to fill 30 CO vacancies at Spring Creek for a long time.

“We’ve had some very poor upper office management,” Turnbull said. “One wasn’t ever a correctional officer. Another never rose above the rank of sergeant prior to being the Director of Institutions—in other words, in charge of all the institutions in the state. With a lack of leadership at higher level you reap what you sow, turmoil and security issues. If you don’t give them staffing, and don’t give them real leadership—you’re in trouble.”

Turnbull said he hopes that Walt Monegan, the new interim DOC Commissioner will be able “to restore order and a sense of respect for the people who work in the department of corrections,” and believes he will.

Walt Monegan III, Alaska's new Department of Corrections Commissioner. Photo credit Gov. Walker's press release.
Walt Monegan III, Alaska’s new Department of Corrections Commissioner. Photo credit Gov. Walker press release.

“The membership is extremely excited to have Walt Monegan,” said Brad Wilson, the office manager of the Alaska Correctional Officers Association, an independent labor organization representing correctional officers statewide. He hopes to see the new commissioner selected permanently. Monegan is the former Public Safety Commissioner who was reassigned in 2008 by former Gov. Sarah Palin during the “Troopergate” scandal, because, some claim, of his reluctance to fire Alaska State Trooper Mike Wooten, who was involved in a custody battle with Palin’s sister, and Wooten’s former wife. “They can search the nation all day long and they’re not going to find anyone better than Walt Monegan. He’s a man of high integrity. He’s going to make decisions on what he thinks is right, regardless of what anyone else thinks,” Wilson said.

Staffing levels, shift changes, and the recruitment needs of Spring Creek are important issues to the membership, Wilson added. “We’re looking forward to working with him, and we were also looking forward to the report. We’ve been saying this for years that there needs to be changes within the department, and now I have hope that those changes will come. We’re extremely thankful that the governor came through for the COs.”

Turnbull is also particularly pleased with the report’s recommendations that correctional officers must be properly trained before assuming duty posts, and that they receive ongoing professional training and evaluation.  Sometimes correctional officers didn’t get the required refresher courses they need, including basic courses like CPR and suicide prevention, he said. Some COs worked at Spring Creek for 10 months before attending the State Training Academy.

“The lower the staffing levels are the greater likelihood new staff will be delayed in attending an academy in a timely manner,” Turnbull added. “Spring Creek has always been known as a training facility, and I can’t speak for Spring Creek any more, but I don’t know how Spring Creek or any institute can do the job, and training they’re supposed to do with a minimum staffing all the time,” he said. ”That reflects on what the report touched on with staff morale. Some don’t do what they’re supposed to do, or they may think they’re doing a task properly, but there’s no time for reinforcement—for making sure it’s being done properly. When you’re so busy living from day-to-day that you can’t keep as high a level of quality.”

Nevertheless, he said, Spring Creek is one of the best run facilities, if not the best in the state. “When you read the report, Spring Creek’s name didn’t come up anywhere. We’ve had two murders, but for a high risk facility we had a statistically insignificant number of deaths.” There’s always a risk of suicide with incarceration, family issues, crowding, geographical and cultural challenges, and prisoners are a high risk population, he said:  “It should be fairly common that there are suicides but there are very, very few… It’s amazing how few deaths and deaths by suicide there are at Spring Creek.”   This reflects the dedication of the officers, he said, “But the officers working today need to be able to do the job without the worries of being at, or below minimum staffing.”

 

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