On a Monday afternoon in late June, I visited and toured Spring Creek Correctional Facility, located across Resurrection Bay from Seward, Alaska. Spring Creek is Alaska’s only maximum security prison. The facility was built by the State of Alaska in order to house inmates in-state instead of sending prisoners to the lower 48, as had been done previously. Spring Creek employs nearly 200 people, many of them locals. They live in and around Seward, and in order to reach their workplace, they travel down Nash Road, nearly to SMIC (Seward Marine Industrial Center), then turn left onto Bette Cato Road. It’s an understated turn, simply a left turn without signage, which dead ends into the prison. The physical setting for the facility is gorgeous, the buildings in contrast to the surroundings. The land is a build up of rocky outwash from the mountains that loom large above. The gravel and boulders continue on past the prison, fanning out into Resurrection Bay, carried by the actual Spring Creek, where currently salmon are being caught in large numbers.
I visited Spring Creek at the invitation of Superintendent Bill Lapinskas, when he gave a presentation at the Chamber Luncheon in May of this year. The presentation focused on the changes taking place at Spring Creek, such as new ideas for the segregation unit (a prison’s segregation unit is traditionally where prisoners are isolated from the rest of the prison, typically for disciplinary reasons) and incorporating inmate-painted mural artwork into the common areas of the facilities. Lapinskas moved into the role of superintendent about a year ago. He served as the assistant superintendent for two years prior to that. Even before that, Lapinskas worked at Spring Creek, starting out as a corrections officer and working his way up to his current position.
Upon arriving at Spring Creek, I walked across the parking lot and up the stairs, through the long hallway and was met in what serves as the lobby by an officer. I was instructed to remove all of my metal objects and walk through the metal detector. In my nervous state, I forgot about the metal on my belt, then my shoes, and had to try multiple times until I was able to pass through without alarm beeps registering. I stowed my belongings in a numbered locker in the entryway, and turned over my passport in order to obtain a visitor badge. At this stage, I was cleared to meet Mr. Lapinskas in his office and begin my tour. Lapinskas was welcoming, saying that he was eager to get the word out about the positive changes taking place at Spring Creek.
Sitting in his office, Lapinskas explained that Spring Creek was built in Seward at the City’s request, citing the plaque in the entryway of the prison that states “built by the City of Seward for the State of Alaska.” The facility was dedicated on March 26, 1988. Lapinskas explained that one of his goals is to create more of a connection between Spring Creek and the City of Seward. He wants to get more of his prisoners out in the community, doing good things for the people of Seward. He cites an example: this past winter, during the intense snowfall weekend of late January, a number of Spring Creek inmates with community clearance, along with corrections officers, spent a day shoveling the roofs at Mountain Haven, Seward’s long term care facility.
The tour continued with a visit to what serves as a board room, the location of each morning’s staff meeting. Staff photos are clustered in groups on one wall, physically representing the work teams. The teams work 12 hour shifts, 7 days in a row, followed by 7 days off from work. One week, they work the day shifts and the other work week of the month, they work PM shifts. The board allows staff members to see and know who their coworkers are who cover the other shifts. Also represented on the board are the weekday workers, such as the parole officers, health care team and education department. Lapinskas spoke of Alaska’s struggle with crafting a budget and how it has impacted staff recruitment. He explained that the State is required to staff its prisons, and that there are mandatory ratio of corrections officer to prisoner rules that must be met. This isn’t the perception amongst the general public, however, which sometimes causes recruitment efforts to struggle. The prison had 14 job openings as of my visit.
We returned to the office area, walked through the prison’s lobby and continued our tour by passing through two heavy doors, walking down a staircase and then going through another set of heavy doors, which brought us into the gym. There were inmates and officers spread throughout the space, some lifting weights, others talking and sitting on the bleachers. Small rooms with doors led off from the gym, although our tour didn’t allow time for seeing inside most of these various spaces. I looked around, trying to soak in my surroundings, not sure what I was seeing. It was surprisingly open, and reminded me of my high school gym. Lapinskas spoke with a few officers, checking in with them.
The gym exits into the yard, the central outdoor space, around which the whole prison is situated. We walked the dirt pathway, and were met by a group of inmates who wanted to talk with Lapinskas. They were members of one of the seven clubs that operates within the prison walls, social clubs that organize events and activities. The leaders of these clubs comprise the Council, with whom Lapinskas meets regularly. The group had a logistical question about using common space for an activity. “Just send me an email, put all the details in an email,” Lapinskas encouraged the man. Lapinskas spoke about a past incident, when a softball game had degenerated into an act of violence by one prisoner. “Now we can’t do softball,” he said. This tension between the relaxed manner of Lapinskas and the reality of being inside a maximum security prison was present throughout my visit.
Lapinskas walked us toward one of the “houses”, each of which can house about 150-200 inmates, for a total capacity of 500. “I know you can’t show me the segregation unit, but could you tell me what it’s like inside,” I said. “Who says you can’t see Seg,” he responded and directed our path towards the building that houses the segregation unit. I hadn’t expected to see this unit, or even to go beyond the office section of the prison when I had scheduled my visit ten days earlier, speaking with assistant superintendent Marianna Miranda, who I had met in the winter at the Chamber Community Awards dinner.
Lapinskas walked us into the unit, greeting the corrections officer on shift, with whom Lapinskas has been working for well over a decade. We all chatted, I observed the layout, which looked remarkably like the images depicted in films of prisons, and exactly like the videos that I would find later on youtube, from a series entitled “Behind Bars, Alaska” which filmed one of their episodes inside Spring Creek. Lapinskas proudly showed off the murals, which were painted by inmates, with help from Seward artist Jennifer Headtke. Lapinskas pointed out the desks in the common area of the segregation unit, which have allowed prisoners to safely be out of their cells. The desks are designed to impede movement of a person’s body, arms and legs outside of their desk area, so that they can be in the proximity of other humans without causing injury to themselves or the other person. Although the desks looked confining to my eyes, they represent a way to allow physical reentry of a previously violent prisoner into the wider community of fellow prisoners, while maintaining safety.
Our time was drawing to a close, and although I was interested to see and learn more, I was also already weary after only two hours spent inside Spring Creek. I was emotionally and mentally trying to make sense of what I had seen. I felt in awe of my neighbors and friends who regularly work 12 hour shifts for a week straight, a total of 84 hours spent inside the prison walls before getting their week off. Lapinskas walked me back through the many heavy doors that had allowed us to reach the inner buildings of the prison. I asked him about his motivations and he responded “I do this [job] because I think that I might be able to get 1 person to change their way of doing things.”
Further information about Spring Creek can be found at: http://www.correct.state.ak.us/institutions/spring-creek-history