Many Alaska prison inmates still being sent thousands of miles away

Posted: Monday, October 31, 2005

A prison sentence in Alaska often means exile as well as incarceration.

A U.S. Justice Department study of prison trends across the country released in October shows more than 30 percent of Alaska's prison inmates were serving their time in private facilities, the second highest rate of private prison incarceration in the country. Just about all of those inmates are sent to Arizona - more than 2,000 miles away - said Alaska Corrections Department Spokesman Richard Schmitz.

"We're about at capacity at all units," he said. Excluding the inmates held in private institutions, the Justice Department study showed Alaska prisons at 101 percent of capacity in 2004.

Only New Mexico had a higher percentage of its inmates in private prisons, sending about 42 percent to contract facilities, the Justice Department report shows.

And unlike New Mexico, Alaska inmate numbers include people awaiting trial.

A Juneau woman with a son serving at the private prison in Florence, Ariz., said the distance creates hardship for inmates' families.

"It's like a death in the family," said Maria Miller, who didn't find out her son was leaving the state until she got a collect phone call from him in Arizona. "It's really tough."

She said her family can still visit, but it is complicated and expensive. In addition to round-trip airfare to Phoenix, visiting her son means renting a car to drive another 50 miles south into the desert to get to Florence, which has Arizona's largest concentration of state prison units as well as the private prison. The motel where family members stayed was about a half-hour away from the prison.

Scott Wellard, appointed superintendent of the Lemon Creek Correctional Center earlier this month after serving in an acting role since May, said the decision of who goes to Arizona is made at the state level. It is generally long-term prisoners who are sent out. And because the state has exported so many in the last five or six years, many inmates facing long sentences expect it.

How they feel about going seems to be split "50-50," he said, guessing at reactions he's seen since coming to Lemon Creek as a correctional officer in 1994.

"Some are very happy about it," he said. Some don't have family in Alaska. People with deeper roots in Alaska have more problems with leaving, he added.

He would rather see Alaska inmates remain in Alaska, he said.

Family visits are good for the inmates as well as the institution, Wellard said. "They help keep the peace. Whether you're in for murder or (drunken driving), everyone has to have someone to care about them."

Alaska's prisons, with smaller, more easily managed populations, also have fewer problems with inmate violence and gang activity than prisons in other states, Wellard said.

State publications list Lemon Creek's capacity at 164, ranging from men and women arrested on drunken-driving charges to maximum-security inmates. The only other institution in the state with maximum-security inmates is Spring Creek in Seward, with a population listed at more than 500. That's less than half the 1,392 inmates from Alaska who were privately incarcerated at the end of last year.

Wellard said building a new prison complex in Alaska is a major topic of discussion. "I hope and pray that happens," he said. "We should keep our prisoners in our state."

"The goal is to bring people back," Schmitz said. The state is looking at a new complex in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough northeast of Anchorage.

Wellard has never been to the private prison in Arizona.

Hawaii, which sends 28 percent of its inmates to private prisons, according to the Justice Department report, is another state with inmates at the private Arizona prison, Miller said. The inmates are segregated by state, though, and don't use the same areas at the same time, she said.

Miller doesn't like that the prison is set up to make a profit from the prisoners, she said. She cannot give her son a calling card to call home. Rather, he has to buy his calling card from the institution.

The daily cost of housing Alaska prisoners in Arizona is about half the $110.08 per day it costs to house a prisoner in the state, Schmitz said.

The goal to keep state inmates in state is not just a matter of cost, he said. Advantages include the potential for bringing more jobs to the state.

The cost of transporting inmates nearly to the Mexican border varies, he added. Often the timing for prisoners to leave for Arizona depends on available transportation.

Methods vary. Sometimes the state flies prisoners down. Sometimes the state seeks requests for proposals from air services to see if less expensive options are available. Other times it has meant flying a prisoner down to Arizona under guard, he said.

Nationwide, 34 states and the federal justice system reported 98,901 inmates being held in private institutions at the end of 2004, about 3,200 more than a year earlier, the Justice Department report stated. Nearly 17 percent of those prisoners - 16,668 - came from Texas, which sends 9.9 percent of its inmates to private facilities.

While the number of prisoners nationwide increased by about 1.9 percent, to just under 1.5 million, between the end of 2003 and the end of 2004, Alaska's prison population increased by about 0.6 percent.

Including prisoners privately incarcerated and people awaiting trial, Alaska had 4,554 people behind bars at the end of last year.

The increase of 27 inmates over 12 months included 22 more men and five more women. Women, in both 2003 and 2004, made up about 8.7 percent of the inmate population.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at

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