Alaska correctional officers union says system is in ‘crisis’ due to staffing shortages

Source: Lisa Kennedy/MGN
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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - The union representing Alaska correctional officers says the system is in “crisis” due to staffing shortages and that planned recruitment efforts are insufficient.

Randy McLellan, the president of the Alaska Correctional Officers Association, said that serious understaffing has created a dangerous environment for staff and inmates across Alaska’s correctional system.

McLellan is a staff sergeant at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center, he says there have been roughly eight assaults against correctional officers at Hiland in the last few months.

Problems with staffing are well-known to the department and nothing new.

“We are at minimum staffing levels,” said Nancy Dahlstrom, the corrections commissioner, before addressing allegations that the situation was dangerous for officers, “Any place could be unsafe.”

On Dec. 17, the department was down 90 officers. The staffing gap had gotten worse since late-October when Dahlstrom said there was an 84-officer shortage.

Despite the staffing issues, Dahlstrom said correctional facilities across Alaska are safe.

“Anytime we have an issue of short-staffing, we have challenges,” Dahlstrom said on Dec. 17. “I can tell you that every single institution is staffed appropriately, every institution is doing what needs to be done to keep everyone safe.”

McLellan disputes that asking, “How can she say that when she’s down almost 100 officers?”

Although staffing problems exist across Alaska, McLellan says that it’s especially dire at Anchorage Correctional Complex and Spring Creek Correctional Center.

McLellan says a “riotous situation” took place at Anchorage jail in recent weeks that very nearly got out of control. Dahlstrom says no formal complaints have been made by the facility’s superintendent.

In May, Spring Creek was put into lockdown when dozens of prisoners started a riot, causing an estimated $100,000 in damage.

“I lose sleep thinking about my co-workers at Anchorage jail or Spring Creek, thinking anytime I’m going to get a call saying, ‘It happened, we had a riot, two officers are dead,’” McLellan said.

Dahlstrom disputes that Spring Creek or Anchorage jail are particularly bad, saying that shortages exist in every Alaska facility.

According to the correctional officer’s union, understaffing has led to overwork and burnout.

Correctional officers work one week on, one week off. With staffing levels low, officers are being asked to work “mandatory overtime.”

A typical work week sees officers working 84 hours over seven days; mandatory overtime can see staff working an additional 36 hours a week. “That’s at a minimum,” said McLelllan who said that officers tell him they’re going home exhausted saying, “We can’t risk our lives anymore.”

Dahlstrom said that mandatory overtime is a tool that’s being used as needed but the department tries to limit it as much as possible. “It’s not ideal but it’s necessary,” she said.

According to the commissioner, recruitment “has been a priority of mine since day one.”

The department is planning a marketing program across the state and nation to find more officers, it is also planning to send representatives to jobs fairs and maintain a job recruitment website.

In the governor’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year, $75,000 has been added to hire more correctional officers and $62,000 had been added for additional medical screening for an anticipated rise in applicants.

“I think we can meet our needs with that,” Dahlstrom said before saying if more funding is needed, then the department could go to the Legislature for an additional appropriation.

McLellan says that figure is likely insufficient to solve the department’s staffing problems.

He says the corrections department has lost 25 officers since the Dunleavy administration took office in late 2018. McLellan looks to recent recruitment campaigns by the Alaska State Troopers and the Anchorage Police Department to bolster staff numbers as an example of what can be done successfully.

Kelly Goode, a DOC deputy commissioner, told a House State Affairs Committee on Dec. 11 that the department is in the process of interviewing 45 aspiring correctional officers. According to Goode, the department expects to hire only 30% of those applicants by the end of a stringent application process.

“Nationwide, there is a shortage of correctional officers,” Goode told the committee.

Overcrowding and understaffing have led DOC to consider sending inmates Outside. The department currently has a request for bids from out-of-state private prisons to house 250-500 Alaska inmates.

Dahlstrom would not confirm on Friday how many bids the department had received or when one might be approved. With the corrections system at roughly 98% capacity, the commissioner said in mid-December that she didn’t know if more inmates may need to be sent out-of-state.

Dahlstrom explained that a tough-on-crime bill signed into law in July had seen a five percent rise in the prisoner population. The controversial policy of sending prisoners Outside is opposed by the ACOA.

McLellan told KTUU on Dec. 11 that it leads to worse outcomes for rehabilitation and that Alaska’s correctional officers are the best at doing their jobs.

There is also potentially a local solution.

The Alaska Legislature appropriated $16.8 million to reopen Palmer Correctional Center but Dahlstrom said the department would need to hire an additional 70 staff to run the facility.

Whether the Palmer Correctional will be reopened is still under discussion.

In the meantime, McLellan says some of those funds could be rerouted to help with recruitment. He believes that the Dunleavy administration is hell-bent on pushing forward with a private prison process.

Dahlstrom says that’s absolutely false.

For the commissioner, she says she is greatly appreciative of corrections officers and said it is a tough profession that is often done invisibly. “They deserve our gratitude and thanks for the work that they do.”

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