The Palmer Correctional Center in Sutton is finishing up a nearly $17 million renovation project and is scheduled to reopen Monday, about 5 years since it was shut down.
The prison’s superintendents said they’re excited to finally open Palmer Correctional Center, which is nestled in the Talkeetna Mountains, after years of construction work.
“It’s going to give them the best opportunity for their lives,” said co-superintendent Jason Hamilton.
But criminal justice reform advocates are concerned about the timing of the reopening and what it says about the overall direction of Alaska’s justice system as prison populations continue to rise with no end in sight.
“More beds does not make us safer,” said Megan Edge, spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska.
The Palmer prison will add about 300 beds to the state’s current prison capacity of about 5,200.
The prison originally shut down in 2016 in response to a declining inmate population and as part of a restructuring effort to cut costs.
When it reopens next week, the prison’s grounds will be divided into medium- and minimum-security wings and it will house both sentenced and unsentenced individuals.
The $16.7 million renovation project included things like fire alarms and an intrusion detection system in a perimeter fence, as well as unplanned repairs for mold, asbestos and water damage.
Palmer Correctional Co-Superintendent Deirdre Banachowicz said overall, the facility is more desirable to incarcerated people than others she’s worked at.
“Each one of the rooms has windows in it, which is kind of unlike other facilities. You have beautiful mountain views. It’s just a different environment in general,” she said. “And I think it’s very conducive to rehabilitation.”
She said there is a large outdoor recreation area on the minimum-security side and a large gym on the medium-security side. She said the rooms are dorm-style housing.
“It’s hard to call them cells,” she said.
The Department of Corrections declined Alaska Public Media’s requests to tour the facility. It also said it couldn’t share photos. And it declined an interview request with the Department of Corrections Commissioner Nancy Dahlstrom to answer questions about the Palmer prison and how it fits into the state’s corrections system overall.
Criminal justice reform advocates say the goal should be to lower the number of people incarcerated, not reopen a once-shuttered prison. They say recent growth in the state’s prison population shows that the state’s strict crime laws are failing at a steep cost to both incarcerated people and taxpayers.
The number of incarcerated people fell sharply during the pandemic, but overall, it’s been on a steady increase for at least the last two years. And now, the overall prison system is operating at over 95% of its capacity with eight of its 13 prisons at or exceeding their capacity.
Edge, with the ACLU, said it’s only a matter of time before the Palmer prison fills up, and that a more humane and cost-effective option is to move people out of jail into parole and other re-entry programs, something backed up by some scientific studies.
“In five years, what’s the state going to do then? The solution is to lower the prison population,” she said. “It is not to just keep building more warehouses — the solution is to decarcerate, get people rehabilitated and out of jail.”
The Palmer prison will cost about $14.8 million per year to operate, according to state estimates.
To Edge and other reformers, the millions of dollars would be better spent on services to help people leaving prison find good jobs and to provide better mental health care, something that the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission recommended in a 2020 report.
“The reality of that is, taxpayers really carry that burden,” said Edge. “And it shouldn’t just be about money. The reality is when you incarcerate one person in a family, the likelihood that other people in that family also go to jail also goes up.”
It costs upwards of $60,000 per year to house each inmate, based on cost estimates from the corrections department in 2019.
Meanwhile, union leaders are worried about what it means for prison safety when they’re already working mandatory overtime and being called in on their time off.
“It’s insanity, really, to take staff away from institutions that are already compromising the safety of their staff and the inmates that they’re caring for to ramp up and open a new facility,” said Randy McLellan, president of Alaska Correctional Officers Association.
He said several prisons are already operating below safe staff levels, and corrections officers are overworked.
Like many other industries, the prison system had an exodus of workers since the beginning of the year. But McLellan said corrections got hit especially hard since they were overworked prior to the pandemic. The Department of Corrections says one in 10 corrections officers positions are unfilled, and McLellan said that could force prisons to operate with fewer staff.
“Jails don’t ever shut down — you’ve got people under your care that need it 24/7. So what you do is you operate with less security staff. That creates an incredibly unsafe situation in the facility,” he said.
Hamilton and Banachowicz said that concern is unfounded. They said through staff transfers and new recruits — whom they hope will be enticed by $5,000 signing bonuses — they’ll have no trouble getting the 106 officers needed to operate the Palmer facility at full capacity by October.
This story has been corrected to fix a reference to the maximum-security wing. There are medium and minimum security wings of the Palmer Correctional Center.