No longer just guards who turn the locks on jail cells, Alaska’s correctional officers are being officially recognized this week as the multi-dimensional stalwarts of protection they are.
National Correctional Officers Week was observed locally in a 2010 proclamation by the 26th State Legislature last session, but the designation has been celebrated nationally since 1984 when the first week in May was picked to honor correctional officers and correctional personnel nationwide.
“Correctional officers are kind of the unsung and often unrecognized portion of our law enforcement community,” sponsor House Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, said. “Generally you don’t have a lot of folks wandering through prisons so we don’t see what they do on their 12-hour shifts, seven days a week. People see a different image of what goes on in prisons through the events you see on television.”
Stoltze said he has visited every correctional facility in the state and correctional officers are an area of public safety and justice that he has an affinity for.
“The folks that work there are as much behind the scenes as anyone can be,” Stoltze said. “They are behind walls and razor wire. From the probation officers to the shift supervisor there are a lot of hard-working men and women.”
Lemon Creek Correctional Center has 52 security staff total. The correctional officers work one week on and one off. During weeks on they either work the 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. shift or 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Starting wages are just over $20 per hour, the lower end of the state payroll.
“My heart always goes out to the correctional officer,” LCCC Superintendent Scott Wellard said. “These guys have a tough job. They are dealing with people who are at the worst times in their life, every single day. Not only are they correctional officers but they are advisers, counselors, people that inmates can turn to for any type of guidance during the day. They do this job not because of a paycheck (but) because they generally care about human beings.”
Alaska ranks 12th nationally in the percentage of adults who are incarcerated. The state also has a 50 percent recidivism rate. While this is based on a number of factors, including aggressiveness of state laws for punishing people to how states track the records of prisoners, it is the correctional officers who must deal with them on a daily basis.
LCCC averages 240 inmates in custody yearly while booking in 10 to 20 offenders each week and releasing about the same number. Emotions of inmates who never will get out can heighten tensions as much as repeat offenders who are in a revolving door and first-time offenders.
“It is one of those things that, once you realize what you are into, that you are dealing with people,” Wellard said. “If you know how to communicate with people you will do a good service at this job. They appreciate that we look at them not as a number, but as a person.”
LCCC is a multi-function facility, from maximum security to the smallest crime a person can commit to go to jail. They handle the gamut from booking to various programs for rehabilitation; anything that can be done inside a prison is accomplished inside LCCC.
It is the only institution in the state that provides its own laundry service.
LCCC features a hobby shop and educational courses that try to ease reentry into society by teaching parenting and financial skills and other basics, such as getting IDs and working with probation officers.
On Fridays the multi-culture club finds three movies that are piped into the televisions in the 11 living units.
An average of 20-plus inmates live in each unit. A unit has a dorm setting with the bunks around the edge. A modular unit has two-bunk cells around it and a community area in the middle. A gymnasium and outside recreation areas are available.
“Safety and security of the inmates are the number one priorities of our correctional officers,” Wellard said. “They want to protect the inmate on the inside which, in turn, protects the public on the outside.”
Correctional officers (COs) must go through an extensive background check, a long interview process, pass a six-week academy program and work 200 hours of training. Aside from prisoner welfare and security inside, 10 COs are prisoner transport officers. They accept transports from other facilities and transport inmates to other institutions as well as to doctor and health appointments.
“I always wanted to get into law enforcement,” Correctional Officer Tony Malacas said. “I thought this was the best place to start, and now I am glad I stayed with it.”
Lt. Kenneth Hoff became a CO because other family members and friends had the same occupation and a high school program piqued his interest. Sgt. Randy Holloway was retired military and the career seemed to him a logical choice.
“I have always liked public service,” Correctional Officer Lisa Cook said.
As head of the Criminal Division of the Department of Law, Deputy Attorney General Richard Svobodny said although the department does not come into contact with correctional officers on a daily basis they are a major part of the justice system.
“Correctional officers in Alaska are hard working,” Svobodny said. “They work under conditions of their jobs that make their work very difficult for them. They don’t deal with the nicest people and people aren’t generally happy about being in custody. We appreciate the hard work that they do.”
• Contact reporter Klas Stolpe at 523-2263 or at email@example.com.