Overcrowding causes space pinch at Anchorage jail

Posted: Friday, January 04, 2008

ANCHORAGE - One prisoner lounges on the top bunk, another on the bottom, and a third stands awkwardly near the toilet in the pinched space of cell No. 15, his bed on the floor, partially slid under the sink.

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This is Charlie Mod, a unit at the Anchorage jail where cells are filled with three felons crammed into 9-foot-by-10-foot spaces barely big enough to swing an arm.

The prisoner unlucky enough to be the third in a cell sleeps on a temporary bed that looks like an oversized rubber sled and is called a "boat." It takes up nearly all the floor space, including underneath an unmovable metal chair sticking out from the wall.

"There's just not enough room," said the unlucky prisoner, who says he normally sleeps curled in a ball.

Overcrowding has been a headache at the Anchorage jail for years. Being the place where those arrested in Alaska's largest city are first processed and where some end up serving their time, the facility on Fourth Avenue east of downtown is on the front lines of a statewide problem: a burgeoning prison population that is expected only to grow.

This has the head of Alaska's prison system, Corrections Commissioner Joe Schmidt, on a mission: Build more prisons and reduce the staggering number of prisoners - three out of five - who are released but end up back in jail for a new crime.

To do this, he wants to change how Alaska looks at its prisons. He wants to move the system from a punitive one where people just do their time, waiting for their release date, to one of rehabilitation.

He plans on asking the state government for an additional $3 million to pay for in-prison programs, some of which were cut under the previous administration.


The state had forecast more prisoners on par with Alaska's mild population growth, but when this year's numbers came in, it realized there is a sizable problem. While last year 33,000 people were arrested and booked into the system, this year the number is expected to have jumped to 38,000.

The average number of offenders in prison on any given day in 2004 was 4,780. In 2006, it was 5,090. And, in 2007, it is expected to have grown by several hundred more.

There simply isn't enough room for them all. Already, about one in five is transported 3,000 miles away to a private prison in Arizona to do their time.

The increase in prisoners can't be pinned to any one cause, according to law enforcement officials. More Anchorage police officers, new minimum sentences for sex offenders, a law that limits electronic monitoring and puts more offenders in prison, and increased drug and gang activity are among the reasons cited.

"We always support more police officers, I've always said that, but everyone has to realize there's another cost to it. It's more than just the wages and the police car; it's the backup system, which is us," said Schmidt, a former superintendent of a Mat-Su prison promoted to the top job by Gov. Sarah Palin when she took office a year ago.

The state is scheduled to break ground on a 1,500-bed prison at Point MacKenzie next fall. It is also working on plans to expand the Bethel and Seward prisons. The idea is to relieve pressure at the Anchorage jail and the other dozen jails and prisons in state, and to bring back some inmates from Arizona.

"Having Arizona as a release valve is a healthy thing," Schmidt said.

His vision of reshaping the department means about 100 of Alaska's worst offenders will be kept in the Southwest.

"When we have someone doing 200 years or 400 years, they're never going to re-enter, and I don't mean to sound like we've given up on them, but those folks we're not trying to program and fix for society because they're never going to be back in society," he said.

Sex offenders, drug abusers

Schmidt's goal is to cut down on the large number of re-offenders, the criminals who are in and out of prison. The number of repeat offenders in Alaska is distressing. In fact, within three years of a 1999 offense, 59 percent were arrested for a new offense, according to an Alaska Judicial Council study that came out this year.

Schmidt wants treatment programs for sex offenders, substance abusers and those with mental health problems to cut this number down. He also wants more vocational training and apprentice programs, ones that will turn into real jobs post-prison.

Schmidt said 90 percent of his prisoners were drunk or high when arrested. About 40 percent have a mental illness - half of them serious, for example with bipolar or schizophrenic disorders.

Under Gov. Frank Murkowski's administration earlier this decade, sex offender treatment programs were cut; so were all the state-funded alcohol-abuse ones. Only three federally funded drug treatment programs were kept; today, they each have long waiting lists.

They were cut because they didn't seem to be working, said Bryan Brandenburg, a psychologist and 17-year veteran of Corrections who was recently made deputy director of institutions and is overseeing the development of the new programs.

This angers him. "They just decided the treatment was not needed and instead of looking at it and revamping it so that it was more effective (they shut it down)," he said.

Brandenburg recognizes not everyone can be rehabilitated, but for those who have the potential, he wants to try. "Evidence says you can reduce recidivism by providing these people with opportunities to make changes in their lives."

Packed in

For Debbie Miller, superintendent of the Anchorage jail, the changes would be welcome. She's been dealing with overcrowding for years. Her jail has about 950 inmates, about 100 over its capacity.

Two weeks ago, it was so crowded that some inmates slept on recreation-room floors. She just put in an order for 25 new "boats," she said.

The overcrowding means more planning and micromanaging of the prisoners, Miller said.

For those in cell No. 15 in Charlie Mod, the overcrowding means paperback books are put the only place they fit, under the bunk bed. It means waiting in long lines to use one of the unit's six phones.

And, for now, with few to no rehabilitation programs offered, it means passing the time in their stark-white, cinder-block rooms, just waiting until they are released.

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