Alaskans deserve better than the not-so golden Goose Creek prison

Posted: Sunday, March 06, 2011

There was alarming news this week in the Capitol related to a long-awaited capital project that was, at its inception, meant to be an integrally important improvement to Alaska’s correctional system.

The Goose Creek Correctional Center is somewhere more than three-quarters completed, and about a year from opening. Even though it is not yet technically behind schedule or over budget, there are still tremendous problems with the project.

The most alarming fact disclosed to lawmakers this past week was what it will cost to operate this facility, and what these costs mean to the annual operating budget for the Department of Corrections in comparison to current operations.

Goose Creek was conceived back in 2004, when former state Sen. Lyda Green, a Wasilla Republican, co-chaired the Senate Finance Committee and brought forward a bill to add needed correctional facilities all around Alaska. Goose Creek was supposed to be one of four potential partnerships between local governments and the state of Alaska. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough entered into an agreement with the state to build this enormous project, with the dual purposes of creating jobs for Alaskans and bringing Alaskan prisoners home from Outside to serve out their sentences here. This offered the alluring prospect of creating temporary and permanent work for Alaskans and followed the conventional wisdom in the correctional industry that inmates are likelier to be successfully rehabilitated when incarcerated closer to families and support networks.

The Alaska Department of Corrections has about 3,800 inmates in its facilities, about the capacity of the existing statewide system. But the prison population is not evenly distributed and some facilities have excess space while others are overcrowded. In addition to these in-state prisoners, nearly 1,000 more Alaskans are currently housed in a private prison in Colorado, which costs the state some $20 million annually.

Green’s bill set a maximum cost for each prison bed of $135,000 with up to 2,200 beds in a maximum-security complex. The Department of Corrections chose to downsize Goose Creek’s capacity to just over 1,500 beds and to build instead a medium-security facility. While most Alaskan prisoners require medium security, a maximum-security facility would have allowed for more flexibility in meeting future correctional system needs. Goose Creek is now expected to cost $225 million, but this figure doesn’t account for any of the interior furnishings so it is meaningless unless one expects the prisoners to sleep on the floor. It also won’t pay for the new water and wastewater treatment systems that must still be built. Even worse, the choice to alter the size and security classification of Goose Creek resulted in a two-year delay, significantly augmenting financing cost.

This past week the Senate Finance Committee heard truly amazing testimony from Department of Corrections officials. Because Goose Creek is located in a remote area of the Mat-Su Borough it would be prohibitively expensive to connect it to the existing water and sewer system, necessitating the building of stand-alone facilities. Green’s bill didn’t designate the specific construction site, so this problem was avoidable. Instead of building in Palmer, Corrections instead chose to build on land donated by the Mat-Su Borough, but this use of free land was a false economy. In addition to the utility costs related to the remote location, future operating costs will also be much greater when it comes to transporting prisoners to and from judicial and even medical facilities.

The annual operating costs of Goose Creek were relayed as a staggering $50 million, not even accounting for almost $18 million in annual lease payments to the Mat-Su Borough. We’re currently only paying $20 million to house inmates in Colorado, and it’s hard to justify more than trebling costs for the benefits of bringing prisoners back to Alaska or improving chances of rehabilitation.

Another independent source of agitation for legislators is the fact none of the other correctional projects called for in Goose Creek’s enabling legislation have been built or even fully planned. Despite clear language calling for expanding the prison facilities in Fairbanks, Bethel, and Seward, there has been no activity in any of these communities. Of particular concern is Bethel’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Correctional Center, which is perennially over its capacity, causing Corrections to have to send many prisoners north to Nome’s Anvil Mountain Correctional Center. The meltdown in the Goose Creek process appears to have consumed all of the Department of Corrections’ attention and capacity, leading to what one senator described as “complete neglect” of the rest of Alaksa.

While it seems beyond comprehension, there is serious talk of not opening Goose Creek and just paying some $20 million annually to keep the facility unopened. Another option is to see if a private firm is willing to try to run it for the state. However things turn out, this is not a good outcome, and the Legislature is entirely right to express extreme dissatisfaction. Alaskans deserve better, and this sort of absurd outcome must not be allowed to repeat itself.

• Brown is an attorney who lives in Juneau.

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