The Palmer Correctional Center will close its doors by the end of the year in a state cost-saving effort, the Alaska Department of Corrections announced Tuesday.
Operations at the facility are already beginning to wind down. Many workers may remain employed with the state if willing to relocate and work at another prison or jail, in particular the Anchorage Correctional Complex. However, approximately 30 positions will be eliminated.
The 500 inmates held under minimum to medium security in Palmer will also soon move. Approximately 70 are expected to be transferred to the Point Mackenzie Correctional Farm, a facility where prisoners work in support of farming operations that provide food for inmates statewide. Most others will head to nearby Goose Creek Correctional Center.
No inmates will placed in out-of-state penitentiaries.
"To be real clear, the inmates in this facility are going to other facilities," Corrections Commissioner Dean Williams told KTUU. "They're not being sent out on the street. They are going to be moved to different places."
Williams says closing the facility is necessary due to state spending reductions made over the past two years. When oil prices first started to plunge in 2014, a sustained drop that has wreaked havoc on state government's bottom line, annual prison spending was $330 million. After consecutive years of reductions, the state will spend 4.3 percent less on prisons -- for a total of $315.9 million -- during the fiscal year that started this month.
According to Williams, a facility closure was necessary, and Palmer was a difficult choice arrived at through a process of elimination: facilities in rural hubs could not go, neither could the busiest urban lock-ups, so the Matanuska-Susitna facility will close.
"Cuts the department has taken in the past, cuts that have been taken with this last legislative session -- as well as $2 million of vetoes that the governor has just announced -- all that combined has really put us in a position where we have to do something more than nibble around the edges," Williams said of the closure.
The state expects $5.6 million in yearly savings, and shifting more corrections employees to understaffed facilities, like the Anchorage Correctional Complex, is also expected to save millions by reducing the need for overtime.
While the closure creates logistical struggles, including moving hundreds of prisoners and uprooting dozens of state employees, when that is done in four to five months Williams says the department would be a step closer to a goal of revitalizing the Point Mackenzie farm.
"A fully operational Point Mackenzie Correctional Farm will not only help the department be self-sufficient," says Williams, "but may provide an opportunity for a market for local farmers to sell their excess produce every season to DOC for processing."
In a written statement issued late Tuesday afternoon, the Alaska Correctional Officers Association said the group and the public were excluded from the decision-making process.
ACOA says it heard rumors of potential closures and requested to meet with the Commissioner to discuss them. The association says in two separate meetings on July 1 and July 7 the corrections commissioner clearly stated that no decisions had been made on closing any institutions and that Correctional Officers and ACOA would be part of the vetting process.
ACOA says it tried to schedule more meetings to receive information, but was continuously put off.
The group's press release said "The Commissioner stated that he wanted Officers and the public involved in the decision, then acted behind closed doors and without taking input on the closure. Now he is asking for input from Officers on how to enact his unilateral decision."
The group added "Correctional Officers, just like all state employees, deserve to know what is happening with their jobs. That is why the Legislature thoroughly vets any cuts before they are made to a Department. Today’s announcement completely circumvents the Legislative and public process."
Brad Wilson, the ACOA business manager, said “Despite telling Officers that the decisions would be transparent, the Commissioner put off Correctional Officers for weeks saying that they were ‘not sure’ and ‘no decisions have been made’ and then surprised all Officers today by announcing that Palmer Correctional Center was closing.”
Austin Baird: What type of inmates are held at the Palmer Correctional Center?
Commissioner Dean Williams: "The Palmer Correctional Center is a minimum and medium security facility that has a number of programs for inmates so these inmates actually go off center, work on different projects off center. They also do programming and treatment services there. There's quite a treatment program there. Appearance wise, it's a very nice looking facility. It's out in the open, un-fenced."
Q: So what is the department changing, and why?
A: "We're announcing the gradual and phased closure and re-purpose of the Palmer facility. It's really being done for two major reasons: one is that the cuts the department has taken in the past, current cuts that have been taken with this last legislative session as well as $2 million of vetoes that the governor has just announced, all that combined has really put us in a position where we have to do something more than nibble around the edges. That's the first thing. We're really in a spot where we have to do something. The second reason is that by closing one facility and instead spreading these cuts out across the board, making everyone a little bit more unsafe, we've made the tough decision to downsize one facility and then re-purpose a good portion of the staff out of the facilities. We can still save the money, yet the side benefit is that we can send staff back to facilities that are really wanting. For example, the Anchorage complex. This move could bring us maybe 20, 30 positions back to that facility."
Q: How many jobs do you expect to be eliminated? And what impact does this have on the number of available beds for inmates throughout the state's prison system?
A: "There's almost 500 inmates at this facility: 175 on the minimum, and 300 or so on the medium side. This is going to require really some moving pieces in terms of where inmates go. To be real clear, the inmates in this facility are going to other facilities. They're not being sent out on the street. They are going to be moved to different places. There's some real inconvenience on this, by the way, in terms of family visitation and not to mention the staff that are working there and put their life into working there. So this are really some huge inconveniences, and there's going to be the anxiety that goes along with some of these changes. But we have the capacity elsewhere in the other facilities to take that. The other benefit, though, is that there's approximately over 100 staff at this facility, and as we re-purpose the facility we're going to be able to move most of these staff, nearly all of these staff, into other vacancies or other positions that we stand up to bring staffing levels back to a more rational level in my mind. At the same time, we're probably going to be able to save about 30 positions."
Q:How do you balance some of the concerns you just mentioned -- Department of Corrections officers potentially having to move or take a big commute, and family members of inmates needing to commute -- with the need to cut? Why is closing this facility the best move instead of closing any other facility?
A: "It's really difficult to close a regional facility that's closing our regional hub. Nome, for example, would be difficult to close. Bethel would be very difficult to close. Fairbanks. These are facilities that almost by virtue of their position are the first ones kind of taken off the consideration list. So the fact that these are minimum security and can be moved. For example, about 70 of these inmates are going to be moved to the farm. We only have about one-third capacity at that farm. I want that farm back at full capacity. One of the benefits we have is standing back up the farm, increasing food production that we use, that saves us money and saves us from buying food. That's one of the issues that's really important, getting the farm back up. It's certainly going to cause inconvenience at some level. This facility, most of these inmates, are probably going to be moved to Goose Creek. which does have the capacity for most of them. We're not at capacity out at Goose Creek. I'm not in love with the one that I'm choosing, but it's a lot better than what the other ones are, continuing to chip away. I call it death by a thousand cuts."
Q: Was this decision made by you or the governor?
A: "This is clearly my decision, along with the executive team. I don't take any of these decisions lightly. I looked around to say, 'What is the facility that makes the most sense?' Of course, I've made the governor and others aware of what I'm doing. ... Most other states have very robust conservation camps, where they have inmates dealing with public sort of issues, like fire abatement, road clearing, fighting wildfires. So this is a huge savings if we can re-purpose a facility like this to then meet a greater public need, too."
Q: What interactions did you have with the Alaska Correctional Officers Association? Did they approve of this approach?
A: "We have been meeting with them and sent out notices some time ago. I've been meeting, my deputy commissioner has been meeting, especially with the correctional officers union. ... We're meeting with them. We're not asking for permission to these tough decisions. These are tough decisions that are my burden, quite frankly. But we want input and we have had a regular dialogue about these scenarios that we have in front of us. None of them are good. I mean, if there was a magic bullet on this thing, believe me, I'd be wide open to it and happy to find it too."