SUTTON — The Sutton Community Council met for their regularly scheduled business on Thursday and ended up discussing a long-debated issue.
The council members and locally elected officials in the audience held a long discussion on the empty Palmer Correctional Center that left more questions than answers. On Oct. 15, Alaska Department of Corrections Commissioner Nancy Dahlstrom announced that the DOC would issue a Request for Proposals to house between 250 and 500 Alaskan prisoners in out of state prisons. On Oct. 23, 22 members of the Alaska House of Representatives signed a letter condemning the RFP and requesting that PCC be reopened immediately. A decade ago, the Sutton Community Council was already making decisions on what type of facilities would be allowed within the Sutton Special Land Use District. The 2009 Sutton Comprehensive Plan prohibits three uses within the Sutton SPUD, maximum security facilities, correctional community residential centers and alcohol and drug rehab centers mandated by court order. The Sutton Comprehensive plan even has a special section defining rehabilitation facilities.
“The PCC, located within the Sutton planning boundary, is now, and has consistently been, proposed for expansion by DOC because it is the least costly facility able to provide additional medium security beds,” reads the rehab facility section. “The community of Sutton continues to oppose and desires to prohibit privately run incarceration facilities, including conversion of the existing PCC to private management for operation.”
In attendance for the meeting were Rep. George Rauscher, Mat-Su Borough Assemblyman Jim Sykes, Mat-Su School Board Member Tom Bergey and Gov. Dunleavy’s Mat-Su Office Director Todd Smoldon.
The empty PCC currently costs the state over $1.2 million to keep the lights, heat, and water on. While many in attendance at the meeting had expertise inside the walls of PCC, many questions remained unanswered.
“Where does the $16 million that it would take to reopen a facility that was functioning when it closed,” Juli Buzby said.
Residents of Sutton that long feared the transition of PCC to a rehabilitation-only facility decided to put their desires in writing. The rehabilitation facility section of the Sutton Comprehensive Plan continues to state that Sutton is ill suited to meet the needs of a community residential center without access to public services, community infrastructure, jobs and facilities.
“However, it recognizes that some type of treatment facility may be appropriate with adequate public input and safeguards,” reads the Sutton Comprehensive Plan.
The letter released by 22 members of the House on Oct. 23 does not include the signatures of any elected officials from the Valley, but asks if public safety outcomes will be improved by contracting with out of state facilities, noting Dunelavy’s stated priority of improving public safety.
“Like many Alaskans, we strongly oppose this decision, which openly defies the legislatures appropriation authority by rejecting our action earlier this year to keep Alaskans in-state by reopening the PCC. We were surprised to learn of the administration’s decision to disregard the legislature’s authority as we received no communication from the DOC until the decision was publicly announced, just days before the RFP was to be issued,” reads the letter.
The letter sent to DOC Commissioner Dahlstrom was signed by representatives Edgemon, Drummond, Thompson, Stutes, Kopp, Foster, Ortiz, Wool, Hopkins, Hannan, Zulkosky, LeBon, Tuck, Story, Kreiss-Tomkins, Lincoln, Fields, Tarr, Josephson, Ledoux, Sponholz and Knopp, none of whom represent the Valley. The letter asks Dahlstrom to reverse the DOC’s unilateral decision to issue the RFP which they believe is in violation of the legislature’s appropriation authority and begin the process of reopening PCC immediately.
“Alaska has faced prison overcrowding before and ultimately rejected the notion that sending Alaskans to out-of-state facilities is the solution. The legislature again rejected this idea during its most recent session by appropriating money to keep prisoners housed in Alaska facilities, staffed and operated by Alaskans, with culturally appropriate programs proven to reduce recidivism and future crime,” reads the letter.
During the last legislative session, the House rejected incarcerating prisoners out of state by a vote of 29-6.
“Of course in a time when it’s a lot of millions leaving our economy when we don’t have millions to leave,” Sutton Community Council President Frank Buzby said.
In July, House Bill 49 was signed as the heir apparent to the wildly unpopular Senate Bill 91. With the bill, the legislature appropriated $16 million for the reopening of PCC which has been closed since 2016. While the RFP to send criminals out may help ease the overcrowding in Alaskan prisons, Rauscher believes that PCC will be reopened soon.
“What I got from the governor is he intends to open PCC but he also realizes that probably as soon as it gets open, it’s going to be full and that’s probably not going to solve everything but that’s one of the things he plans on doing,” Rauscher said.
Rauscher met with Dunleavy recently and said he spent his entire allotted time talking about PCC. Rauscher believes that PCC should be used as a rehab facility in conjunction with a prison facility, meeting the needs of the Sutton Comprehensive Plan. During Rauscher’s discussion about his communications with Dunleavy and Dahlstrom, Sykes asked about if the state is mandated to offer rehabilitation services.
“My understanding is that corrections offers classes and those things to help with rehabilitation to everyone, but you can’t force but you can’t force a prisoner or someone who’s incarcerated to take advantage of rehab,” Smoldon said.
Rauscher said that he was not speaking for Dunleavy, but believes that it is a priority of the governor. Rauscher also said that more detail needed to be given to the definition of rehabilitation facilities, saying that it was too vague.
“If there’s somebody out there that wants to find a better path, I think we kind of owe it to them to help them out,” Rauscher said.