Alaska’s prison population is the third fastest growing in the country, and the prisons are over capacity. The crowding problem is especially evident at Juneau’s Lemon Creek Correctional Center where half the female inmates live in a tent outside. Some of them actually like it, but it’s an indication of a problem one state senator is trying to fix.
“It kind of looks like a greenhouse from the outside,” says 29-year-old Lemon Creek inmate Catherine Fredrick. She lives in the tent. “It has bunks all in one row and we actually house more than the dorm does.”
The 20 by 30 foot curved roof canvas tent sits on a raised wooden platform. You can see it as you enter the grounds of the Lemon Creek Correctional Center and it really does look like a greenhouse. When I first visited the prison, I had no idea women, up to 20 of them at a time, were living there.
“It’s not as bad as it looks, you know. Sometimes it gets cold in the winter, but they allow for us to have an extra blanket if it’s really cold out. And in the summer, it’s hot,” Fredrick says.
That’s when they can open a window or decide to walk outside to get fresh air. Inside the prison, it’s different.
“You don’t open your own doors, it’s always keys open the doors, moving gates, you hear the clanking, you hear the keys rattling, you hear the bells going,” Fredrick says.
There is one big con with the tent, though. No running water. Two porta-potties sit outside between the tent and the entrance to the prison.
“The outhouse gets full quick when we have too many people, so you have to use the broom with a plastic bag on the end to push the poop down, and that’s kind of disgusting but we take one for the team,” Fredrick says.
Department of Corrections Commissioner Ronald Taylor admits the living situation isn’t adequate, especially without running water. But given the prison overcrowding situation, he says he doesn’t have much choice.
“As long as the housing issues are what they are, then the tent is going to be used for that as an overflow,” Taylor says.
It’s been used that way for more than 15 years. Men have stayed there before, but lately it’s been for women. Since 2002, Taylor says the number of female inmates in the state has been growing at a faster rate than males.
He says the state’s primary prison for women, Hiland Mountain Correctional Center in Eagle River, recently had a daily count of 441. That’s almost 50 people over capacity.
Taylor says overcrowding issues throughout the state prison system will continue to affect the situation at Lemon Creek.
“When we’re able to really manage our population to where that’s no longer an issue and we can consistently stay down below our numbers in terms of the overflow, then I think that we’re not going to utilize the tent for that,” Taylor says.
A December report from the state’s legislative audit division called the tent a weakness for security reasons. But inmate Veronica Parks comes back to the living standards issue. She lives in the dorm now, but remembers how she used to bang on the prison door for an hour before being let inside to shower.
“We shouldn’t be holding girls in here that we can’t put inside the building,” Parks says.
State Sen. John Coghill has introduced a bill that he hopes will ease the prison overcrowding issue and get more Lemon Creek inmates inside the building.
His proposal would use electronic monitoring to keep nonviolent offenders and people awaiting trial out of prisons, while providing incentives for them to go to treatment programs. The bill would also cap the amount of time someone is in prison for a probation violation.
“We can’t afford another jail. Where would we build it and how would we build it when we don’t have the money?” Coghill says. “So that’s the pressure to keep us being creative, to give people avenues to succeed, hold them accountable and maybe jails isn’t the best way to do it.”
Coghill says he didn’t previously know about the tent at Lemon Creek, but he finds it troubling.
“Just because they’re in prison doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be treated with the best dignity we can treat them,” Coghill says.
But inmate Catherine Fredrick still says the tent is actually better than living inside the prison.
“Living in a tent is kind of like a privilege for the jail because you get the feeling of being outside, feeling of being home when you can open your window,” Fredrick says.
Of course, she says she’d rather be home with her 11-year-old son. But for now, she says home is where you make it.