Spring Creek staff acted illegally in 2013 incident, Ombudsman finds

Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward. (Hillman/Alaska Public Media)

The state’s ombudsman’s office said staff at Spring Creek Correctional Center violated the law in 2013 when they stripped 12 inmates and locked them naked in cold cells without clothing, blankets or mattresses for up to 12 hours. The ombudsman made recommendations to rectify the situation in a report released last week. The Commissioner of the Department of Corrections said he’s determined to prevent something like this from happening again.

Listen now

In early August of 2013, 14 inmates created a disturbance at Spring Creek by smashing toilets, windows, and sinks. They were moved to a segregation unit.

Ten days later, one of the inmates broke a shower head and tried to flood the housing unit. 12 other inmates were accused of encouraging him. They were taken from their cells and chained together, stripped in front of a female staff person, then locked naked into different cells without coverings or mattresses.

Staff was not reprimanded for their actions. An inmate filed a grievance that was dismissed by the Spring Creek administrators. Those officials no longer lead the institution.

The Ombudsman’s office found the staff’s actions to be illegal, unconstitutional and against Department of Corrections policy.

“This kind of behavior is not acceptable in our prisons,” Alaska State Ombudsman Kate Burkhart said.

Burkhart acknowledged that the inmates “had previously destroyed a significant amount of property in the prison. [However,] that doesn’t justify what happened.”

Burkhart said policies and procedures to protect the safety and dignity of both inmates and staff broke down. The report recommends changing policies on strip searches and the use of restraint devices.

Department of Corrections Commissioner Dean Williams said he agrees with the findings of the report. His staff are already implementing most of the recommended changes and are revising other DOC policies, some of which are more than 20 years old.

“What happened then, by every standard that I have and that I think our department leadership have, that incident was completely unacceptable,” Williams said.

Williams and his leadership team are pushing to change the culture of the department to prevent incidences like this in the future. Part of that strategy is to improve the relationship between inmates and staff by treating both with respect and humanity.

“This whole concept isn’t just for the benefit of the inmates,” Williams said of the cultural shift. “It’s really about developing another element of security around how you interact. Because when you have relationships with people, even ones in your custody, they’re more likely to have better interactions so you don’t have this developing ‘us-versus-them’ dynamic.”

Williams also created an internal investigation unit that’s independent of the institutions to look into reports like this one and to take corrective actions. The 2013 incident was originally investigated by the lieutenant who ordered the illegal actions. The new unit has also investigated the 2013 incident and concurs with the ombudsman’s findings.

The ombudsman report also suggests equipping corrections officers with body cameras. Williams said he is open to the idea and to the accountability body cams provide to both inmates and staff, but he needs to consider how the evidence would be handled and how the policy could impact other departments.

Anne Hillman is the healthy communities editor at Alaska Public Media and a host of Hometown, Alaska. Reach her at ahillman@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Anne here.

Previous articleBristol Bay braces for long awaited Pebble Mine plans
Next articleBan on hovercraft use within Alaska preserve stands, another appeal may come up