FAIRBANKS - Until last month, the gym at the Fairbanks Correctional Center doubled as prisoner housing because of overcrowding.
Beds hugging the gym walls made it hard for inmates to jog laps or play more than one game at a time of half-court basketball, activities that help maintain peace at the jail because prisoners can blow off steam. Female prisoners were kept away from the gym because male inmates lived there.
Now, with prisoner counts down in Fairbanks and statewide, the gym is a gym again and the tension level at the jail is lower than it's been in about three and a half years, both inmates and employees at the facility said.
The jail's recreation program has expanded to include Alaska Native games, women are involved in activities and the gym is being used to meet a sizable demand for religious services. Until now, religious services were relegated to a room about as big as a middle manager's office.
Eileen Henry, who has been in and out of jail in recent years - she is currently being held on a charge of unlawful evasion - shares a living space with about 20 other women.
"There's some days when I feel real suffocated," Henry said. "I'm glad they finally opened it. I look forward to it every day."
The number of people in Alaska Department of Corrections custody, whether they are behind bars, in halfway houses or using electronic monitoring, has been slowly declining since January, Department of Corrections Commissioner Joe Schmidt said.
He's not sure why.
The prison population is decreasing even though Alaska's law's are getting tougher and the number of people booked on crimes is slowly rising.
The severity of the crimes is no better or worse than in recent years, Schmidt said. The number of people being held at private correctional facilities in Arizona is down as well.
The state's jails were about 3 percent over capacity this time last year, Schmidt said. Today, the jails are at 93 percent capacity.
Currently, 5,229 people are in state custody, either awaiting trial or doing time after being convicted of a crime. That's 240 fewer people than this time last year, the commissioner said.
The only fact that seems to support the downturn is that fewer people on probation and parole are re-offending, Schmidt said.
"If these numbers hold, we are likely going to ask for a study," the commissioner said.
Whatever the reason for the downturn, fewer prisoners is making life more manageable at FCC.
"When inmates can't release their aggression, who are they going to release that on? The staff," acting superintendent Rob Jeffords said. "The more recreation we can provide, the fewer problems there are for officers."
Jerry Donovan, a habitual drunken driver accused of flouting probation, has been at the jail for about a year and said he's noticed fewer fights in his wing of the jail since the gym became more accessible. Donovan also works at the jail as a recreational assistant. Hoover Adams, also a habitual drunken driver, works as a recreational assistant as well. He agreed with Donovan.
"There's more activities," Adams said.
At the height of the overcrowding, nearly 100 prisoners were sleeping in the gym, some on plastic cots known as boats. The correctional center was built to house about 200 people but more than 300 prisoners have been confined there at times.
On Monday, the jail had about 215 prisoners, Jeffords said.
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