Unalaska City Council rejects proposal to employ inmates at fish plant — for now

Workers sort crab at the UniSea processing plant in Unalaska. Company officials say they were hoping to employ four inmates during the winter fishing season. (Photo by Laura Kraegel/KUCB)

This winter, prison inmates won’t be allowed to finish their sentences while working at UniSea’s processing plant.

The Unalaska City Council narrowly rejected a resolution Tuesday that would have approved the community’s participation in a work release program run by the state Department of Corrections.

City Councilor Dave Gregory cast the only “no” vote on the proposal to let four select inmates live and work at UniSea under electronic monitoring. But with four of six councilors present, it was enough to sink the measure.

“We’re a small, isolated community,” said Gregory. “I’ve talked to probably 25 people who’ve come to me and said, ‘Why are we doing this? We don’t need the risk.’ And I feel the same way.”

Gregory and other critics said they might support the program in the future — if Unalaska bolsters its counseling and addiction services to help with rehabilitation.

Others opposed it outright, including resident Mary Lekanoff.

“Kids here are free,” she said. “They’re running around safe. And you guys want to bring these people here? What are you going to do when the first child gets abducted or raped? How are you guys going to feel?”

Still, many expressed support for the program, which aims to chip away at Alaska’s high recidivism rate by preparing inmates for life after prison.

Some Unalaskans argued the island already counts felons among its residents, while others pointed to failures of the corrections system.

“When people are exiting prison, they need resources, support, community connections, and tools,” said Alysha Richardson in a letter to the council. “It is not in the best interest of anyone to create or maintain barriers for these people. The people who will qualify for this program are getting out of prison anyway. I want them to have the best possible chance to succeed.”

Mayor Frank Kelty agreed. He said he’ll look into revisiting the issue with a full council.

“I think we’re a big enough and strong enough community to support a program like this,” he said. “We’re talking only four individuals. We have the support of our police department. People are going to be thoroughly checked out before they’re brought here. There’s not going to be any sex offenders. So I don’t think this [proposal] is done yet.”

The resolution would seem likely to pass if it goes to another vote. Councilors Shari Coleman, James Fitch, and Dennis Robinson all voted in favor, meaning it only needs one more supporter.

While they were absent Tuesday night, Councilors Roger Rowland and Alejandro “Bong” Tungul could tip the scale in that direction. Rowland previously said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the program.

Laura Kraegel covers Unalaska and the Aleutian Islands for KUCB . Originally from Chicago, she first came to Alaska to work at KNOM, reporting on Nome and the Bering Strait Region. (laura@kucb.org / 907.581.6700)

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