Kotzebue prisoners transferred to Nome due to jail’s frozen pipes

The City of Kotzebue Police Department in February 2020. (Wesley Early/KOTZ)

Kotzebue has had a cold February, with little snow for insulation. That means some locals have had to contend with frozen water and sewer lines. That problem is also being faced by the city, which recently had to transfer several prisoners to Nome after the jail toilets became unusable.

At the start of February, sewer and water lines at the Kotzebue Regional Jail froze up, hindering prisoners’ toilet usage. Since then, the sewer lines have been thawed, but city manager Jeff Congdon says the jail still has no running water.

“We’re able to bring water over from Public Works from the water treatment facility and we’re able to provide drinking water,” Congdon said. “But the toilets are special jail toilets, and so they don’t flush when you add water to them. They have to have pressurized water in order to flush properly.”

As a result, several prisoners had to be transferred from the Kotzebue jail to the Anvil Mountain Correctional Center in Nome. While Congdon says that prisoner transfers out of Kotzebue to Nome are fairly common, sewage pipes normally aren’t a factor. 

“It’s typical for us to, on a weekly basis, transfer down to Nome,” Congdon said, “but we’ve had three additional as a result of our jail being frozen up.”

The prisoners who were transferred were all long-term prisoners. Congdon says that short-term arrests and lock-ups are still happening at the Kotzebue jail. 

“If somebody needs to be locked up as a result of police contact, that’s still taking place and it’s still very much a secure and fine facility,” Congdon said. “We just have concerns for long-term care with not being able to offer flush toilets, and want to make sure that if prisoners are in Kotzebue, that we treat them with a dignified manner.”

While toilets remain out of commission, prisoners will have to rely on water brought over from Public Works and the use of honey buckets. Congdon says that since the freeze-up, the city has been trying to warm up the water lines with a thaw box. 

“It’s essentially a welder that thaws out the lines,” Congdon said. “But so far, at 22 below and not a lot of snow coverage, those lines have not thawed out yet.”

Congdon says keeping a thawed water system is a priority for all Northwest Arctic residents. He says locals should make sure that their heat tape and heat circulation pumps are plugged in and operational. In addition to the jail, the city-owned liquor store, which uses the same water and sewer line, has also had water line issues. 

Wesley Early covers municipal politics and Anchorage life for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at wearly@alaskapublic.org

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