The Alaska Department of Corrections (DOC) partially fulfilled the ACLU of Alaska’s Oct. 24 public records request. The records provided show that several DOC facilities have been exceeding emergency capacity standards, compromising safety, sanitation, and rehabilitation. The information provided in the Nov. 5 response included the daily count of inmates, by facility and sentencing status, between Sept. 1, 2018 and Oct. 15, 2019.

An alarming detail revealed in these records, is that the institutions most plagued by the prison housing crisis most commonly care for some of Alaska’s most vulnerable populations, such as: youth, elderly, mentally ill, addicted, disabled, non-criminal holds (Title 47s), Alaska Natives, and homeless individuals. Importantly, between September 2018 and September 2019, the data point to a 20 percent increase in unsentenced individuals, including large numbers of Alaskans who are jailed while awaiting trial, incarcerated without having been convicted of a crime.

“At this point, roughly half of Alaskans in our state’s prisons are unsentenced,” said ACLU of Alaska Policy Director Triada Stampas. “The ugly truth of that is this; many of those individuals are already at a physical and socioeconomic disadvantage. Overcrowding in state prisons can be damaging to anyone’s health, safety, and rehabilitation, but especially so for those already preyed upon by systemic biases built into the criminal justice system.”

In mid-October, DOC Commissioner Nancy Dahlstrom announced plans to move hundreds of Alaska inmates to private prisons Outside. She shared that state prisons were operating at 97 percent of their maximum capacity, a threshold intended to be limited to emergency conditions because it exceeds facilities’ specifications for normal use. Under these emergency conditions, incarcerated people are forced to sleep in cots or bunks in recreational areas, as well as in solitary confinement.

According to the newly obtained records, between October 1, 2018 and October 15, 2019, eight DOC facilities had exceeded their maximum limits. Far from being sporadic occurrences, these facilities’ exceedances spanned an average of 140 days in the time period examined. Three of these facilities had been over maximum capacity for more than 200 days in the time period examined:

  • Anvil Mountain Correctional Center in Nome (267 days over maximum capacity);
  • Fairbanks Correctional Center (253 days over maximum capacity); and
  • Wildwood Correctional Center (226 days over maximum capacity)

Because Commissioner Dahlstrom’s cited figure was for the system as a whole, not by facility, it failed to paint this clear picture of the state of Alaska’s prison system.

Critical overcrowding conditions appear to be ongoing.

Below are the overcrowding figures for the most recent two-week period in the data provided (Oct. 1 - Oct. 15, 2019):

  • The Anchorage Correctional Complex had exceeded its maximum capacity of 863 every day;
  • Anvil Mountain Correctional Center had met or exceeded its maximum capacity number of 128 on four days;
  • The Fairbanks Correctional Center had exceeded its maximum capacity of 259 every day;
  • Ketchikan Correctional Center met or exceeded its maximum capacity of 58 on all but one day;
  • Lemon Creek Correctional Center met or exceeded its maximum capacity of 232 on seven days;
  • Wildwood Pretrial Facility met or exceeded its maximum capacity of 115 on five days; and
  • The Yukon Kuskokwim Correctional Center was over its maximum capacity of 200 every day, as well.

Wildwood Correctional Center, a sentenced facility, also operated above its maximum capacity every day in that period, as well.

In Commissioner Dahlstrom’s October reveal, she also stated that only inmates with seven or more years left to serve would be shipped to the private provider that won the state bid. This doesn’t relieve the pressure of a burgeoning unsentenced prison population, raising questions about the Department’s overall population management strategy.   

“This is not a problem unique to Alaska. Since 1970 the U.S. prison population has risen 700 percent, this is the result of policy decisions – not crime,” explained Stampas. “We have seen successful solutions to the overcrowding crisis elsewhere, including the increased use of electronic monitoring, early release, and alternatives to incarceration for those with mental health disabilities and substance abuse issues. Shipping inmates away, or building more prisons, doesn’t solve the problems, reduce victims, or save money. It just creates more beds for a dysfunctional system to fill.

Two other public information requests from the Oct. 24, 2019 inquiry are pending. DOC asked for clarification on the following two requests:

  • Emails, memoranda and/or other documents related to the planned reopening of Palmer Correctional Center (PCC), from Dec. 5, 2018 to Oct. 15, 2019, inclusive; and
  • Emails, memoranda and/or other documents related to the Department of Corrections’ decision that “the option to reopen PCC was not viable” from Dec. 5, 2018 to Oct. 15, 2019, inclusive.