Alaska Budget Cuts Threaten Local Jails

Sitka Police Officer Noah Shepard serves coffee to inmates in Sitka’s jail, while supervisor Dave Nelson looks on. (KCAW photo/Rachel Waldholz)
Sitka Police Officer Noah Shepard serves coffee to inmates in Sitka’s jail, while supervisor Dave Nelson looks on. (KCAW photo/Rachel Waldholz)

Police departments across the state have been taken aback by a state Department of Corrections proposal to end funding for local jails. Sitka is one of several local departments who say the cuts are so deep, it could force their jail to close.

The proposal is only the beginning of budget negotiations between the governor and legislature. But the Department of Corrections says it doesn’t have many options.

(You can find breakdown of funding for the community jails program here.)

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Nelson: We’re going to give her a tour of the jail. She’s going to basically see it all. We’re going to give her full access, lock down the inmates, let her walk down the hallway, and see it all…

Jail Supervisor Dave Nelson interrupts a card game and shoos the inmates back into their cells, in preparation for a quick tour. In general, those held at the Sitka jail are allowed to use the hallway between cells, for calisthenics or board games or just to jog back and forth. Otherwise, there isn’t much space.

Once the cell doors slide shut, Nelson leads the way in. “Essentially the cell block is just one big long hallway,” he says. “The males are on this side, and the females are on that side.”

There are four cells on the men’s side, plus a holding tank and segregation cell, all lining the one narrow hallway. There are no windows. A TV mounted at the end of the hall is playing one of the Ice Age movies. Since we’re in here, Nelson and Jail Officer Noah Shepard are taking the opportunity to serve coffee.

The Sitka jail has a total of 17 beds, though Nelson says it could accommodate about 23 people if needed.

“Right now we’ve got four in here,” he says. “[But] up until last week we were running at 13, 14, for about a month straight.”

Alaska doesn’t have the county jail system common in the lower 48. But when the nearest state prison is often at least a flight away – in Sitka’s case, it’s the Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau — community jails like this one serve as temporary holding facilities.

This is where people are held when they’ve been arrested, while waiting to be arraigned; or after arraignment, while bail is set. The jail also houses prisoners in town for court appearances.

Nelson estimates that in 2014 Sitka saw about 500 unique bookings, averaging four to six inmates at any given moment.

The funding for all of this comes from the state. But Governor Bill Walker’s proposed budget, released earlier this month, would end that contract, and zero out state funding for all 15 community jails in Alaska.

Sitka Police Chief Sheldon Schmitt said that proposal came as a shock.

“I don’t think people understood exactly what the ramifications would be,” he said in an interview Monday (2-9-15).

In FY2014, Sitka received $711,262 to fund its jail. That pays for the jail supervisor and four jail officers, plus contracts for inmates’ meals and laundry. Without the state money, Schmitt said, the city simply couldn’t run a jail for anything other than overnight stays.

“There’s a lot of costs that are kind of hidden,” he said, noting that if the state does cut funding for local jails, the responsibility for those prisoners would shift to the Department of Public Safety, and the State Troopers. “What are you going to do with these prisoners? Who’s going to take care of them?…And if you’re going to transport everybody, who’s going to do all that, and, what’s it going to cost?”

“I just think it was not fully considered,” Schmitt said.

But at the Department of Corrections, the question is: what would you rather we cut?

“Let’s start with, how did we arrive at the community jails, because we certainly didn’t start there,” said DOC Commissioner Ron Taylor.

The Department is facing a 5.3% cut this coming year, and, like all state agencies, has been told to prepare for a 25% cut over four years. Much of the DOC’s budget is tied up in its 12 prisons, which together house about 6,000 prisoners.

A 5% cut would be the equivalent of shutting down two of those prisons, Taylor said, but “there’s absolutely no way that we can close two facilities within a six-month or three-month or four-month period of time.”

Those cuts are coming, Taylor said, but not in time for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Taylor ticked off the other main areas of the Department’s budget: there’s the cost of healthcare for prisoners, which he says the DOC has little control over.

Then there’s probation and parole; and reentry programs, which help prisoners readjust to life on the outside. Taylor said he is loath to touch those programs because they reduce recidivism, and bring down costs over all.

That leaves the community jails program. The Department is spending about $10.5-million this year on contracts with jails in fifteen communities, covering more than 150 beds. Taylor said that at any given time, about half those beds are empty.

“[We’re not saying] that we want to close jails, because that is obviously not what we want to do,” he said. “I think what we’re talking about is, we need to have the conversation. To say, how can we make those community jails become more effective, and fit more in line with the reentry management system that we are managing?”

Taylor admitted that the Department didn’t consult with local communities before proposing the cut — there simply wasn’t time, he said. The DOC is now reaching out to see what the impact might be.

The answer so far seems to be: quite a big one. Police departments from Sitka to Dillingham to Unalaska to Wrangell have told reporters that the cuts represent nearly all their local jail funding. In Haines, the funding represents 40% of the police department’s entire budget.

Sitka’s Chief Schmitt said the cuts would have major ripple effects.

“I definitely think it’s a big deal for the community of Sitka, to lose the jobs,” Schmitt said. “But also…I think [it’s a big deal] from a public safety point of view as well, that we’re going to be moving all these prisoners back and forth on an almost daily basis on airplanes, and housing them God knows where.”

On that last point, one of the inmates in the Sitka jail had a suggestion: maybe a Super 8, he said.