Kotzebue jail closure causes prisoner problems

State fears other towns that are cash-strapped may also close their jails

Posted: Monday, September 27, 2004

ANCHORAGE - Kotzebue's closure of the northwest Arctic's only regional jail has created unexpected ripples stemming from the state's need to house prisoners nearly 200 miles away in Nome.

A Superior Court judge ruled last month that Kotzebue was legally justified when it shut down the jail rather than continue to subsidize what is rightly a state facility.

But as a result, attorneys find it more difficult to talk with their clients, prisoners can't meet with Kotzebue-area family members and Alaska State Troopers must fly inmates to Kotzebue for every court date, using a state airplane, pilot and trooper time.

State officials also fear that other cash-strapped towns with community jails could follow Kotzebue's lead and close their facilities.

"They could, like Kotzebue, demand more money from the state, and if the state doesn't provide it, they could close down their jails," the Department of Law's Dean Guaneli told the Anchorage Daily News. "Then I think we'd be in a situation like we're in in Kotzebue," where prisoners are held far from home, with all the associated complications.

Until last year, Kotzebue was one of 15 communities that operated jails for the Department of Corrections. Community jails are used to hold prisoners before arraignment, during a trial or before transfer to a larger jail. In some jails, prisoners can serve short sentences.

The department pays for the operations but has not raised its subsidy rates in years. The communities have had to absorb the difference.

Kotzebue formerly used state grants to subsidize its jail, said city attorney Joe Evans. When those grants were eliminated in the face of the state's ongoing fiscal crisis, Kotzebue asked for an additional $331,000 to cover its jail costs, for a total of $920,000.

The state balked, saying $589,000 should be enough to operate the 14-bed facility. Kotzebue disagreed and on July 1, 2003, closed the only jail for a region the size of Kentucky.

With no jail in Kotzebue, the state began paying for troopers to fly prisoners to and from the Anvil Mountain Correctional Facility in Nome in a state-owned, eight-passenger Cessna Caravan.

However, troopers refused to transport prisoners arrested by Kotzebue Police, saying they were the city's responsibility until arraigned.

That forced Kotzebue to reopen its jail, with the associated costs of holding prisoners, paying jailers and transporting offenders to court.

Kotzebue eventually sued, arguing that the state should be responsible for any prisoner charged with breaking state law.

Superior Court Judge Michael Jeffery last month sided with Kotzebue. He ruled that the state, not the city, is responsible for prisoners both before and after their arraignment.

He ordered the state to reimburse Kotzebue for reopening its jail, estimated at more than $250,000.

It was a clear message, Evans said.

"It says to the state, you have an obligation under state statutes" to hold and transport anyone charged with violating state law, regardless who arrests them.

The state has asked Jeffery to reconsider his decision, said chief assistant attorney general Guaneli. "We think the judge just got his facts a little mixed up" and consequently found the state liable for expenses it should not pay for, he said.

The state still argues that municipal police are responsible for prisoners before arraignment.

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