Kotzebue, citing low funds, closes local jail to state prisoners

ANCHORAGE — Kotzebue has closed its local jail to state prisoners because city officials say state funding to support the facility is unfairly low.

The jail is one of the busiest in rural Alaska and normally houses inmates arrested by state troopers in neighboring Northwest Alaska villages until they make their first court appearance.

Kotzebue officials claim the city has lost more than $1 million subsidizing the jail over the past seven years, the Anchorage Daily News (http://bit.ly/xHJllM ) reported Wednesday.

In a Sept. 19 letter to the commissioners of Corrections and Public Safety, City Manager Derek Martin called the funding “inequitable, disparate and discriminatory” and said the city would close the jail to state inmates from Dec. 1 through Jan. 31.

The move forced the state to find other places to house defendants at state expense. The closure will resume indefinitely beginning June 30 if the funding problem isn’t resolved, Martin wrote.

In Alaska, community jails such as the Kotzebue facility are owned and operated by local governments using state funds. Kotzebue officials say some cities receive far more state funding per bed than others.

Kotzebue estimates that it will cost about $1.3 million to operate the jail in fiscal year 2013, said Martin. The governor’s budget, proposed on Dec. 15, calls for about $944,000 in state funding for the jail, he said.

The Department of Corrections says it is relying on audits as it works to determine exactly how much the state ought to be paying to run the Kotzebue jail and 14 other so-called community jails the state uses to temporarily hold prisoners across Alaska.

“We don’t believe that we are discriminating against any one jail,” said Leslie Houston, director of administrative services for the Corrections Department.

She said she hoped the two sides could reach a resolution by mid-February.

Kotzebue and the state engaged in a nearly identical battle in 2003. That time, the city closed the 12- to 14-bed jail to state inmates for nearly two years until both sides reached an agreement over reimbursement costs.

Kotzebue city lawyer Joe Evans estimates that this winter’s closure is forcing the Department of Public Safety to spend $20,000 to $25,000 a week to transport state-arrested prisoners to Nome and other destinations.

“In these two months, DPS will spend $200,000-plus to transport state-arrested prisoners,” Evans wrote in an email.

Troopers in the region routinely fly to villages to make arrests and must escort prisoners to hub communities like Kotzebue where defendants can make their first court appearance.

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Information from: Anchorage Daily News, http://www.adn.com

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