Overcrowding leads to loss of hobby shop at Juneau prison

Lemon Creek Correctional Center. (Photo courtesy Alaska Department of Corrections)

The Alaska Department of Corrections announced this week that it plans to move inmates out of state to address overcapacity in its prison system.

While that plan is still taking shape, the increase in the inmate population is already having impacts at Juneau’s correctional facility.

Last month, the hobby shop inside Juneau’s Lemon Creek Correctional Center shutdown until further notice.

That’s where inmates do arts and crafts. But instead of activities like carving, some inmates will be sleeping there. Staff moved 18 beds into the space.

“And that’s not something we take lightly or we really like to do, but we had to have a place for them,” said Department of Corrections Commissioner Nancy Dahlstrom.

An increase in prison population meant the facility ran out of space. At normal capacity, it houses 226 male and female inmates. Right now, 232 people reside at Lemon Creek.

Dahlstrom said she didn’t want to close the hobby shop because of the creative outlet it provides for inmates.

“You know, it just came down to a real tough choice but we had to do it and I’m hoping that we will soon be able to open that back up,” Dahlstrom said.

She said the state correctional system is feeling the impact of House Bill 49, a crime reform bill meant to enforce stricter sentencing laws. Gov. Mike Dunleavy signed it into law in July.

Since then, DOC said Alaska’s inmate population has grown by 5%.

“The consequence of that is that, you know, yes, people are safer. And we have more people that are incarcerated because of their life choices that they made.”

Because of that, DOC announced this week that it plans to solicit bids from prisons outside of Alaska to house sentenced inmates. Dahlstrom said the plan is to have a contract with one facility last for at least three years.

Whatever facility is chosen must also provide rehabilitation programming and medical care on par with what’s offered in state. They also have to ensure that inmates are able to stay in touch with their families.

Those details are important to people like Don Habeger. He’s the community coordinator for the Juneau Reentry Coalition, a group that works on justice issues in an effort to reduce recidivism.

Haberger said they’re taking the “wait and see” approach to DOC’s plan.

“If the Department of Corrections includes in that treatment processes in out-of-state locations, and they return inmates back to the state prior to release so that we have transition planning occurring, I think the coalition would be OK with that,” Haberger said. “If they do not do those kinds of things, we would be concerned.”

DOC hopes to start transferring inmates throughout Alaska early next year if a successful bidder is found.

As Lemon Creek Correctional Center adjusts to these changes, the carving class for male inmates is canceled for now.

The class was run by Sealaska Heritage Institute, a nonprofit that promotes Southeast Alaska Native culture.

The institute said in a statement it was dismayed that the program was suspended. It said the program has shown proven benefits by giving inmates skills they can use to make money and restoring pride in Alaska Native heritage.

The institute still plans to provide moccasin sewing and formline design classes at Lemon Creek.

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