Proposed bill would stop inmates from being sent out-of-state

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Legislation is set to be filed ahead of the next legislative session that would stop inmates from being sent to serve time outside Alaska.

The bill, sponsored by Anchorage Democratic Rep. Zack Fields, comes on the back of an announcement by the Department of Corrections that it is looking for bids from out-of-state prisons to house 250-500 Alaska inmates.

Anchorage Democratic Reps. Andy Josephson and Harriet Drummond and Ketchikan Independent Rep. Dan Ortiz are planning to co-sponsor the bill.

Nancy Dahlstrom, the Corrections Commissioner, said at the time of the announcement that the winning bidder would need to provide rehabilitation programs comparable to those that exist in Alaska.

Critics of sending inmates Outside have said that the practice is a public safety risk and has led to an increase in gang activity in the past.

Randy McLellan, the President of the Alaska Correctional Officers Association, sent a letter to the governor on Oct. 17, urging for the policy not to be enacted.

"As a Correctional Officer for 22 years, my thoughts on this subject are straightforward - please do not do this," he wrote. "This decision would undermine your public safety goals.“

“I think what we need to do is clearly prohibit it in statute,” Fields said before describing that inmates have experienced worse outcomes for rehabilitation when sent out state. “We can’t be increasing violent gang crime in Alaska.”

The only exceptions in Fields’s bill to sending prisoners Outside would be for the health of the inmate or if it would allow them to serve time closer to family.

In June, the Alaska Legislature passed House Bill 49, a tough-on-crime bill that was projected to increase the number of Alaska inmates. The legislation included intent language to reopen Palmer Correctional Center, a facility that was shuttered in 2016.

The Legislature also appropriated $16 million to reopen the facility but Dahlstrom estimated it would actually cost $21 million to bring Palmer Correctional online. She also said that it would take 12 months and would require hiring 70 additional corrections officers, the department is already said to be short-staffed.

The state’s initial request for bids from out-of-state prisons to house Alaska inmates is $17 million. Dahlstrom said discussions were ongoing whether or not Palmer Correctional would reopen.

If passed by the Legislature, Fields’s bill would only go into effect on July 1, 2020, a delayed effective date that’s intended to give the Department of Corrections time to hire more staff and bring out-of-state inmates back to Alaska.

The expressed need to send inmates Outside is because of overcrowding of the state’s prisons and jails. According to figures presented by the department in October, corrections facilities across Alaska are at roughly 97% capacity.

Records obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska showed that several prisons and jails across Alaska have recently been overcrowded beyond their maximum capacities, sometimes for months at a time.

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