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Disturbance quelled at Alaska maximum-security prison in Seward

Heidi Zemach

SEWARD -- Some 14 maximum-security inmates created a disturbance in a segregation unit of Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward, lasting about nine hours until 8 a.m. Tuesday. There were no injuries and prisoners remained locked in their cells throughout the disturbance, according to a media statement on the incident issued by the Alaska Department of Corrections.

The incident ended when correctional officers removed the prisoners from their cells and relocated them to a different segregation unit, according to the media statement. The prisoners involved will face disciplinary action and possible new charges. Alaska State Troopers are investigating. Damage was limited to some toilets in the cells, flooding of cell floors and broken glass. At no point were prisoners able to get out of their cells, according to the Department of Corrections press release.

The incident was not a riot, and the unit was fully-staffed at the time of the incident, said DOC spokesperson Kaci Schroeder. There has been no lockdown, and the prison has returned to normal operations, she added.  Schroeder would not verify that a known gang of white supremacists were involved, and repeated that the case is under investigation.

The disturbance is the the second publicly reported one at the Seward-based facility in about 10 months. On Oct. 24, 2012, a group of prisoners overpowered corrections officer Kim Spalding, pinned him down and beating him, seriously injuring the officer as he repeatedly stabbed at two of the inmates. Spalding was fired soon after the investigation of the incident for carrying a pocket knife, which was against Department of Corrections regulations. He later told local reporters he had brought it along because he felt unsafe, and had been threatened by some inmates. He said he wasn’t the only officer who carried a knife in self-defense. Spalding had worked at Spring Creek for more than five years, following a 15-year career as a police officer.

Spring Creek facility, the state’s maximum-security facility, houses 315 prisoners. It remains more than 30 corrections officers short of the number of officers it had regularly been operating with prior to the opening of the new state prison facility at Goose Creek last year and a change in the way correctional officers are scheduled statewide. That “blended” (eight-hour) schedule was initiated by DOC Commissioner Joe Schmidt July 1 last year. The previous schedule had allowed officers to work a one-week-on, one-week-off schedule, rather than a strict eight-hour “security” work shift, and that was an arrangement that nearly half of the Spring Creek corrections officers who lived outside of Seward had used. Shroeder said hiring efforts are continuing.

Monday night’s incident was another troublesome example of what can result from a shortage of corrections officers, and a shift-policy that discourages the recruitment of new officers, said Brad Wilson, the business manager of the Alaska Correctional Officer’s Association. ACOA’s president pointed to another inmate assault on two medical staff at the Anchorage jail just last week while the facility was minimally staffed -- and the corrections officer on duty had been called away to another part of the jail.

As a result of the staff shortage and the difficulty in recruiting new officers at Spring Creek, the inmate population was lowered to create a smaller inmate-to-officer ratio. Some employees have worked overtime, while others who left have returned to fill some of those shifts.

On April 20, 2013, the State of Alaska Department of Corrections lost the arbitration it had engaged in with the Alaska Correctional Officers union, in regards to changes in their collective bargaining agreement. The arbitrator’s decision came down in the correctional officers' favor, requiring DOC to immediately return to the former shift schedules, said Wilson. But the DOC administration has resisted that order, and on Monday, the arbitrator again ordered the state to honor its earlier ruling and comply with the shift changes it had ordered more than three months ago, Wilson said.

To her knowledge, the negotiations between the officer’s union and the DOC over shift changes were ongoing, and no decision on the shift schedule had been made, Schroeder said. 

Heidi Zemach is a reporter for The Seward City News, where the preceding report first appeared. It is republished with permission. Contact her at hzemach(at)gmail.com.