ACLU says prisons in Alaska are overcrowded

Report: State provides better living conditions than most in Lower 48

Posted: Wednesday, March 10, 2010

ANCHORAGE - State prisons are overcrowded but they generally provide better living conditions than prisons in the Lower 48, said the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska.

A report released Monday urges the Department of Corrections to reduce crowding and improve medical and mental health treatment.

The Anchorage Daily News reports about 20 percent of Alaska prisoners are sent out of state because there's not enough space.

The Department of Corrections is building a 1,500-bed new prison at Point MacKenzie in Mat-Su. The project is supposed to be done in 2012.

The department is in charge of 5,300 inmates, and supervises the one in 36 adults in Alaska who is either in jail, prison or on probation or parole. Alaska Natives are 18 percent of the Alaska population but 36 percent of the prison population.

Corrections Commissioner Joe Schmidt said he welcomes audits.

"We are going to look at the report and if there are things there that we can responsibly do, that serve our mission, and they comply with being frugal and responsible with public money, we are going to do them," he said.

The ACLU report attributes some of the overcrowding to new mandatory minimum sentencing laws and an increase in prosecutions, despite a general decrease in crime rates. Between 1999 and 2008, the number of prosecutions in the state increased 20 percent while the crime rate decreased by 10 percent, the report said.

It points out that a 25-year minimum sentence translates into a "million-dollar sentence" because of the high costs of prisoner care - about $46,000 a year for a single inmate.

The report also states that probation and parole officials are sending too many people back to prison on technicalities and clogging up the system. The number of prisoners held for probation and parole violations has more than tripled since 2002, the report said.

Many are being locked up because they revert to drug or alcohol problems when they get out of prison. Four of every five prisoners has some kind of substance abuse problem.

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