The Dunleavy administration is making changes to the Department of Corrections: It removed a position focused specifically on re-entry and is changing policies that some advocates say helped people succeed when they released from prison. Many are reserving judgment about the new direction, but the changes are concerning others.
In early January, a group of people with community organizations who volunteer inside prisons to provide re-entry services met for a conference that was also attended by some Department of Corrections employees. Some of the volunteers were unexpectedly asked to turn in the green badges that gave them easier access to the inmates they work with.
Tom Sharkey, the deputy director of institutions, addressed some of their concerns about changing policies during a lunchtime panel discussion at the event. He said his department is receiving direction from the governor’s office.
“The governor’s office is micromanaging us at this point,” he said. “[They are] very, very involved with everything we’re doing. The commissioner — every time we come up with something — changing the language on a policy, putting a security thing forward — she has to take it to the governor’s office for their approval.”
Previous policies aimed at helping people when they are released from prison involved community input from reentry-focused organizations. But Sharkey said there is no community input into the process for changing these policies at this time.
DOC Commissioner Nancy Dahlstrom said during a phone interview the following week that it is her responsibility to review every single policy in her department.
“I have a team here that I use and we go over everything from what the purpose of it is, and are we accomplishing that?” she said. “And safety – safety of the community, safety of the inmates… I don’t know that it would be correct to name any more specifics than that.”
Some of the changes that have already been put into place include suspending special access volunteer badges. Dahlstrom said it created security risks, though she couldn’t provide specifics. Vetted volunteers are still allowed into facilities with regular volunteer passes.
Another change suspends the 12-hour day pass program that allowed inmates a chance to participate in community activities, like church services, outside of prisons. That pass violated the rights of victims to be notified of a person’s release from custody.
Dahlstrom emphasized that she recognizes the important role community members play in her department.
“Without the community involvement, we won’t be successful,” she said.
She said the department will continue involving community members in programs. Advocates understand a new governor needs to review policies, but have some concerns about the changes.
Cathleen McLaughlin with the Partners Reentry Center in Anchorage said programs like the ones that were suspended were developed to help people more easily transition back into the community.
“Many people don’t understand but one of the key feelings, key emotions” of people being released, she said, “is fear when going back into the community.”
Programs that help people build connections before they get out of prison can ease that fear, McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin said she recognizes the need to review departmental policies.
“I am hoping, though, that we will take a look at what many of the services do, and how they are designed to do things in the best interest in the state of Alaska before simply saying we’re going to put them on the shelf, or we’re going to put them in the parking lot for a later date,” she said.
Janice Weiss runs the Mat-Su Re-entry Coalition. She said she expected changes when the new administration took over, and she agrees with some of the changes so far. She recognizes that the department’s main concern is security and public safety and said that doesn’t mean the coalitions and the department can’t still work together.
“DOC still wants to work with us,” she said. “We still have very valuable services to offer to the folks who are either incarcerated or about to be released. And we just need to find out the best ways to do that without causing any antagonism or problems.”
Other department changes include rejecting a $1 million federal grant to use for re-entry programs. Alaska was one of three states awarded the grant last fall. Dahlstrom said she turned the money down because it would have built too many costs into the department’s overhead budget that lasted beyond the grant.
When asked about potential cost savings for the Department going into the future, during a December interview, a department spokesperson said all possibilities are on the table, including privatizing the prisons. She said that decision would include community input.