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Early release for Alaska prisoners ‘is not on the table,' Corrections commissioner says

Apr 28, 2020

Prisoners at Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau attend a formline design class in 2015. (photo by Scott Burton/KTOO)

States across the country are working to reduce crowding in jails and prisons in response to COVID-19. Solutions run the gamut from keeping low-level offenders out to releasing some prisoners early.

In Alaska, the court system issued two court orders last month aimed at reducing the number of people in state custody.

But despite an outbreak among staff at Juneau’s correctional facility, Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the head of the state’s Department of Corrections say early release of prisoners is not an option.

In Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee signed an executive order approving early release for about 1,000 nonviolent offenders.

California and North Carolina have also released thousands of prisoners early as states work to limit the spread of COVID-19.

But in Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown announced that she will not release inmates to reduce crowding in state correctional facilities.

Earlier this year, Alaska’s Department of Corrections was struggling with overcrowding. Facilities statewide were 97 percent full as the department worked on a now-abandoned plan to send inmates out of state.

But in a news conference, Corrections Commissioner Nancy Dahlstrom said crowding is less of a problem now. She said state facilities are now at 89 percent capacity.

“I have a little bit more room than I’ve had in the last few months,” Dahlstrom told reporters. “We’ve been able to have smaller numbers of folks in most of the units. I have room to isolate people when I need to.”

Last month, the ACLU of Alaska sent a letter to state leaders asking them to consider ways to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 inside state institutions.

They suggested releasing inmates at higher risk of serious medical complications from contracting coronavirus.

Dahlstrom said that she read the letter and is open to suggestions for how to protect inmates.

But early release “is not on the table,” she said.

“Should the courts decide to make some decisions, I will honor that,” she said. “But I am not looking at that currently.”

Dunleavy followed up to Dahlstrom’s response at the press conference.

“I think we all want to be safe, and not just safe from this virus but safe from individuals that may do us harm,” Dunleavy said.

The Alaska Court System issued two court orders last month that are meant to reduce the number of people in custody.

In an interview earlier in the week, DOC Director of Institutions Sidney Wood said orders issued by the Alaska Court System, along with efforts at police departments to arrest fewer people, have helped bring down the overall inmate population.

“So some folks that normally would have come in and stayed with us are now being remanded and released, according to that bail schedule set by the court,” Wood said.

At Lemon Creek Correctional Center, where multiple staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, there are about 30 fewer inmates there than there were a month ago.

One of them is Jeremy Simile. He and other inmates are confined to their dorms for most of the day in order to reduce social contact among the population.

After hearing about other states that have released inmates early, he took a poll of the other men in his dorm, also known as a “mod.”

“Of the 15, nine are within a year, 11 are nonviolent offenders,” Simile said. “So if they followed the guidelines that other states have followed and push people to parole board — or people that were within a year of their release date, if they push them out the door — that would leave five people in my mod.”

Simile said he has about five years left on his sentence, so he doesn’t expect to be let out early.

But he said having fewer people living in close proximity to him would at least give him some peace of mind.