Monday, June 17, 2019
Originally inmates were told the event had been canceled by the Governor’s office. It took until late that day to reach someone from the Governor’s staff, and a response was received late the day after that the decision had actually been made by the Commissioner of DOC, Nancy Dahlstrom.
As soon as she got word Wednesday morning, Clayton’s wife immediately notified his family members who had been approved to attend and then set about spreading the word in every way that she could. The night before the event, the cancellation was covered by both KTUU (TV) and KSKA (radio). It was her hope that family members who had not yet heard the news might see the coverage before showing up the next morning. She also hoped to raise understanding about the importance of events of this nature and the impact of cancellations like this on families; especially when the cancellation is so close to the event without any attempt by DOC to notify approved visitors other than notifying the inmates themselves.
Not Enough Advanced Notice
Most of the households in Clayton’s family also have a Securus account that they pay for which allows Clayton to call them. The cost is exorbitant. Even local phone calls now cost $1 per 15-minute call due to an agreement between Alaska’s DOC and Securus which places the burden of security costs directly and intentionally onto families while providing kickbacks and rewards to DOC. Many families cannot afford this cost. Even a family that does have Securus may miss the call when it comes. If so, there is no way for the inmate to leave a message and no way for the family to call back. All this means many, many inmates in the facility are restricted to reaching their families with news and important information by mail instead.
The combination of these factors ensures that short-notice announcements are not able to be communicated to families in a timely manner, especially when DOC makes no effort to notify the approved visitors. We were not there when families would have arrived for the event, but are aware of at least one family that came from out of state, expecting to participate in the festivities. Visitation staff worked diligently that day to try and afford those affected who traveled great distances with slightly longer visitation periods according to procedure (two hours instead of one), but it was too late to save these families the expense of the trip.
The Importance of Family Events
Yet, maintaining the connection between inmates and their families is essential to communities. “Studies have consistently found that prisoners who maintain close contact with their family members while incarcerated have better post-release outcomes and lower recidivism rates.” (Prison Legal News, 2014) Fostering and strengthening these connections should be one of the highest priorities of Alaska’s DOC. Their mission statement says, “The Alaska Department of Corrections provides secure confinement, reformative programs, and a process of supervised community reintegration to enhance the safety of our communities.” Releasing inmates who have been severed from all community and family ties is setting up the inmates and the communities themselves for failure and further trauma.
Events like the Summer Festival and Father’s Day provide a supervised and secure, but also outdoor and more natural environment for loved ones to come together. They can feel like a real family without the extreme institutional environment of daily visitation. They have the opportunity to eat a meal together, play bean-bag toss games, listen to music, and walk and talk surrounded by nature. (Click here for a more detailed description from our post about the Summer Festival in 2017.) Family members can get a huge boost to endurance for their wait, and inmates get a critical reminder of what real life on the outside is like.
“It’s hard sometimes to remember that everything that happens in here isn’t real,” Clayton told his family. “The rules, the politics, and the way everything is done is so foreign to daily life outside of this place. It gets hard to remember when you live and breathe those expectations every day.”
DOC’s Explanation vs. Visitor Experiences
This news was very interesting to family members who attended the earlier event and noted bizarre changes in security that day compared to previous years, specifically:
- A drug dog is normally observed at these events as visitors come in and later as inmates return to the inside of the facility. We’ve been told that a drug dog was present that day, yet neither Clayton nor his guests ever saw one in any of the normal places.
- Staff are usually placed at the front gate to warn visitors that their vehicles are subject to search when on prison grounds for the event. If they do not wish to submit to such a search, they have to leave. People have turned around and left in previous years, but this year no one provided the standard warning.
- In prior years, administrators on site from both DOC and the facility made a much-appreciated effort to be present and available for inmates and families to speak with. This year, they were mostly absent and noticeably more hurried in the short periods they did appear.
- Corrections officers normally man the tops of the buildings and the watchtowers in a very obvious way, surveying all that goes on during the event. This year, none were observed in those elevated locations.
- Perhaps the most bizarre of all, a very standard route is always used to bring visitors into the back ballfield area for events. The route skirts the outside of the prison yard and leads families into the ballfield by an outside gate. This year even though the bus, as usual, stopped at the external gate, visitors were brought through the inner prison yard to access the field. Clayton’s family never imagined they would ever set foot in the prison yard, and many visitors commented on it as they were brought through.
- GCCC has at least two body scanners which are utilized at the facility to check inmates for contraband. These scanners are similar to those used by TSA, and actually allow corrections officers to identify if someone has hidden contraband inside their bodies as well as within their clothes. Normally, it takes a significant period of time for the inmates to be processed back into the prison after an event, because they are all scanned and searched. Yet this year, after the event, multiple inmates discussed that they and others around them had not been scanned back in.
- Some inmates observed that equipment utilized at the event, which is always checked for contraband, had not been inspected this year during takedown.
Additional Information to Consider
We have heard that GCCC had been warned that a specific visitor would be bringing a large drug drop into the event. Instead of denying the visitor (mule) access to the facility, we’ve heard the event was turned into a sting by officials. Troopers were supposedly present. The mule was said to have shown up for the event already under the influence (a state in which a visitor would normally automatically be turned away), but when staff questioned whether to allow them entrance, they were given clearance to do so at a higher level than the facility. Then, despite knowingly allowing this person entry, the drop was made successfully and the mule left without being caught.
We have heard that a housing unit was searched immediately after the event because the staff already suspected they hadn’t stopped the drug drop, and the housing unit had more than a dozen inmates fail drug urinalysis even before the event had taken place. In the search after the event, a very large amount of various types of drugs were discovered and removed, and more inmates were screened and failed drug urinalysis than ever before at the facility. Now, inmates are also failing screenings in other housing units as well. However, with failed screenings occurring both before and after the event, it is likely that at least some of the drugs discovered were in the prison before the event.
We want to emphasize that we do not know that any of this scenario is true. We wonder, however, if a sting going on might be why we observed that obvious normal security measures were not in place during the event, and why we were led through the prison yard, where perhaps there are more cameras than the normal route. However, this scenario fails to explain how the drop could still be made, or why inmates and equipment that are always scanned and inspected after these events were allowed back into the inner facility without scans or inspections. It seems like something that should be investigated.
Families Paying the Price
If the scenario or something like it is true, then security was knowingly allowed to be compromised to achieve some goal of law enforcement. Normal security would have prevented the drugs from getting through. We have personally witnessed the visitation staff intercepting contraband and turning away visitors according to security policies on dozens of occasions. They are diligent and very good at what they do.
The new DOC Commissioner claims to prioritize health and safety at the facilities while making contraband interception a priority. Yet, she herself shut down the Professional Conduct Unit (PCU) within DOC as her very first act in office. The PCU specifically investigated allegations of staff misconduct, including assisting in the introduction of contraband. One corrections officer at the facility was intercepted doing exactly that. The Commissioner claims that the PCU is unneeded because the Alaska State Troopers can and will handle these issues, but this claim is ludicrous when compared against the actual events in the report, Alaska Department of Corrections: An Administrative Review (Nov. 2015). This investigation discovered that, in cases as extreme as inmate deaths, troopers neglected to interview witnesses, watch security footage, or collect evidence. We shouldn’t allow people to get away with crimes simply because they’re State of Alaska staff.
Families should not be punished because DOC mismanaged an event. These events are vital to the well-being of families and happen very infrequently. The Father’s Day Event that allows the participation of children only happens once a year. The staff at GCCC do their jobs well and have proven for years that these events can be conducted safely and securely.
While much of what you see posted to this blog is in response to serious issues that have occurred at the facility, the overall conditions and culture of the facility had radically improved. Until very recently, and largely in relation to the shift in DOC’s higher-level administration, we had very little negative issues to report. In more peaceful periods, we are forced to hold back much of our positive feedback due to fear of retaliation against the many, MANY wonderful corrections officers at GCCC who make visitation and daily life at GCCC more peaceful and secure for families and inmates alike. Unfortunately, we’ve been informed that a good word from us can be just as harmful to the staff as when we expose those intentionally causing harm. We hope that those we interact with each day know how much we appreciate their kindness and hard work. To any of the corrections officers who read this blog, and strive to treat inmates and their families with compassion in your daily stress-filled job - Thank you. Sincerely. Life is so much more difficult without people like you in these critically important positions.