By Allison Sayer for Seward City News –
State legislators took a close look at Alaska’s only maximum security prison during the current round of budget cuts. Representative Tammie Wilson of North Pole proposed a budget amendment that would close Spring Creek and transfer all inmates to Outside facilities by July 1, 2017. Wilson estimated the proposed move would save the state over $12 million annually. She based this estimate on the daily rate of housing prisoners here vs. housing them in the Lower 48. Wilson also stated the cost of prisoner healthcare would be lower in the Lower 48 due to the high cost of these services in Alaska.
The Alaska House Finance Budget Subcommittee for the Department of Corrections discussed the amendment on Feb 22 along with several other amendments to the Corrections budget.
In the committee meeting, Representative Wilson presented several justifications for her proposal. Spring Creek Correctional Facility was constructed based on the premise that bringing prisoners home would reduce recidivism. Representative Wilson stated that this has not happened, although she did not present any research supporting this assertion.
Wilson argued that because Spring Creek is a maximum security facility, many of the inmates were going to be “in some cell, somewhere for a very long time.” She stated it made little difference whether that cell was in Alaska or elsewhere. Furthermore, she presented a dichotomy between spending money on prisoners and spending money on children. “If I have to choose between cutting the education budget or sending inmates out of state so we can have the savings there,” she said, “it’s pretty easy for me to make that choice.”
Several representatives voiced concerns about the Amendment, which was ultimately voted down 5-4. Representative Drummond did not support the Amendment because it would eliminate 171 full time, well-paying jobs. Furthermore there would be little notice for the employees or the community. She noted this would make a large impact on a community of only about 3,000 people.
Both Representatives Parish and Fansler voiced concerns that Alaskan prisoners would be mistreated in Lower 48 facilities. Fansler stated he believed “Alaskans would have a better opportunity of treating other Alaskans with the respect and dignity that every human being deserves.”
Parish specifically mentioned his mistrust of private, for profit prisons. He stated they deliver “the lowest cost and the lowest quality of care.” Parish also asserted that prisoners have better outcomes if they are near community support networks. Like Wilson, he did not have specific research to support this statement.
Representative Parish also voiced opposition to sending $8 million out of state to provide for prison services rather than spending money in Alaska.
Representative Rauscher ultimately voted to close Spring Creek, although he voiced some uncertainty about the Amendment during discussion. He implied the savings to the state were likely to be less than the figure Wilson provided.
In the Committee meeting, Representative Kreiss-Tomkins asked the Commissioner to state his position on the Amendment. The Commissioner stated that he hoped savings to the Corrections budget would come from implementing Senate Bill 91. This new reform bill aims to keep more nonviolent drug-related offenders out of jail. He did not support closing the Spring Creek Correctional Facility. An email statement released later from the Commissioner’s office stated the facility was “integral” to “[the] effort to…provide secure confinement, reformative programs, and a process of supervised community reintegration to enhance the safety of our communities.”
At the end of the discussion, the committee voted. Representatives Rauscher, Saddler, Wilson, and Talerico voted Yes. Representatives Drummond, Fansler, Parish, and Kreiss-Tomkins voted No. The Committee Chair, Representative Kawasaki, was the tiebreaker. He voted No on forwarding the recommendation. However, Representative Kawasaki also said that “The Commissioner does have some latitude in selection [of where inmates go],” and “that is something we do need to look at.” The final documents prepared by the Corrections Subcommittee included recommending full funding for Spring Creek for 2018.
Seward Mayor Jean Bardarson was in Juneau during the committee meetings. She is glad the Spring Creek Correctional Facility will remain open for not only the economic benefit of the City of Seward, but for the welfare of the inmates. She believes “It’s best to keep [the inmates] in state, where they can have that family support.”