In many correctional facilities in Alaska, an enclosed room with an opening that lets in fresh air is considered outdoor space. For inmates held in protective custody at Goose Creek Correctional Center in Wasilla, that’s their only access to outdoor recreation, which the American Civil Liberties Union and inmates say could be a violation of their constitutional rights.
Jimmy Nix sits in a small white room at Goose Creek, the only splash of color coming from his blazing orange prison uniform. Since June of 2015 he has been housed in the Special Management Unit, or the SMU. He sought protective custody because he’s a convicted sex offender, a crime that often elicits threats and punishment from general population inmates.
“There was a lot of taunting,” Nix said of his most recent time in the general population. “Lot of things being said. ‘Kill yourself.’”
Inmates in the SMU live, eat, and recreate in a completely separate area of the prison from other inmates. It’s for their own safety, but it comes with restrictions. They have limited access to educational programs, are only out of their cells a few hours each day and their outdoor recreation area is a large, enclosed concrete room. The room’s roof has one opening at the top of a wall that lets in fresh air.
“The part where you get locked down in your room? It takes its toll on you already,” Nix said.”But the part where you can’t go outside, see the sunshine, see a tree, watch a bird? It’s very depressing. It weighs on you.”
The inmates can only see sky, clouds, and the occasional plane, Nix said. Some inmates in the SMU said they have not seen trees or grass in over a year.
Occasionally the sun is positioned just right and shines in perfectly, he said. “You’ll see about eight guys conjure up in a little bitty square just to absorb the sunshine from the grates because there’s not much that comes through.”
Department of Corrections policy states that allowing the inmates access to the space meets their requirements for daily outdoor recreation. One inmate, Jared Kowalski, filed an official grievance with the department and was told by deputy commissioner of institutions the area complied with department policy and state codes.
Goose Creek Superintendent John Conant stood in the echo-filled room and explained “It’s outside-inside. That’s what I’ve always been told.” It’s considered outdoor recreation “because of the fresh air. That’s the main thing.”
The room has exercise equipment in one area and a basketball hoop.
Inmates in the general population have access to an open yard with ball fields, grass and views of trees, as well as access to indoor gymnasiums.
Assistant superintendent Kevin Horton said outdoor recreation is very valuable for the inmates.
“The more they’re out recreating and out of the mods and blowing off steam, the better things are for the whole institution,” he said. ‘Mods’ is shorthand for modules, or prison housing units.
Horton said the administration can’t make the yard available to people in protective custody because officers have to keep the groups separate. If the staff mix them together, he explained, they can’t guarantee the prisoners’ safety. Additionally, moving the 120 SMU inmates is logistically challenging in a prison that holds about 1,200 people.
“We can’t shut down the yard to move that population into a general population area because then we’re losing time, we’re interrupting programs, we’re interrupting jobs — things of that nature,” he said.
Conant stressed that the guys in protective custody have voluntarily chosen to be there, and they could transfer to other special general population units that are considered safer.
“There’s other units these guys can be in if they just have a little more courage, I guess you’d say, and just try it,” he said.
But Tara Rich with the ACLU of Alaska said just because the inmates volunteer to be in the SMU, does not mean that they waive their Eighth Amendment rights. That amendment protects them from cruel and unusual punishment, and court decisions dating back 30 years dictate that it guarantees prisoners have regular access to the outdoors.
Department of Corrections policy states the SMU inmates’ rights are met by letting them spend time in the room with fresh air, but Rich argued case law does not support that assertion.
“I have not seen any sort of guarantee, for Eighth Amendment purposes, an open window in an enclosed room would be equivalent to guaranteeing a meaningful opportunity for outdoor exercise,” she said during a phone interview.
Inmates in the SMU, like Clayton Allison, agree and say the deprivation has taken it’s toll. Allison said he has only seen nature once in the past year and a half – at his mother’s funeral last summer.
“I unashamedly admit that I was weeping on the ride there, not because of my mom’s death, but because of the car ride and being able to be outside,” he recalled. “I was able to see the many colors of the green on the trees and the flowers. It had been so long it was overwhelming for me.”
Allison said just being able to see the grass could greatly improve his mental health.
Superintendent Conant said protective custody inmates will only have access to the open yard if there’s a departmental policy change.
According to Rich, the ACLU is working with the DOC to try to improve conditions for inmates who are in all types of segregation, including in the SMU.