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Opening soon: Alaska's $240 million Goose Creek prison

Ben Anderson
Goose Creek Correctional Center sits just off the road, about 30 miles away from Wasilla.
Chan Anderson photo
Two 12-foot-high fences lined with razor wire separate the prisoners' recreation area from the surrounding campus.
Chan Anderson photo
The recreation yard at Goose Creek Correctional Center. On the right is where medium-security prisoners will be housed.
Chan Anderson photo
The view from inside a medium-security cell at Goose Creek Correctional Center
Chan Anderson photo
The prison has its own post office facility, where prisoners can go to retrieve their own mail.
Chan Anderson photo
Showers in the prison's Special Management Unit, which features more security measures than the general population housing.
Chan Anderson photo
Cells in the Special Management Unit at Goose Creek Correctional Center.
Chan Anderson photo
Cells in the highest-security portion of the Goose Creek prison. They feature two slots in the door so guards can restrain a prisoner's hands and feet before opening the door.
Chan Anderson photo
The kitchen in the Goose Creek Correctional Center is the largest commercial kitchen in the state, and the only kitchen in the entire facility.
Chan Anderson photo
Prisoners are handed their food on a tray through a slot anonymously, which prevents potential problems with intimidation and preferential treatment from prisoners working in the kitchen.
Chan Anderson photo
The waiting area in the medical unit at Goose Creek Correctional Center.
Chan Anderson photo
The visitation room at Goose Creek Correctional Center.
Chan Anderson photo

Very soon now, at the height of the Alaska summer, a $240 million facility in the Mat-Su Borough will gets its first residents. Hopefully, these residents won’t be staying too long, because that facility, the Goose Creek Correctional Center, is Alaska’s newest prison -- one that the Department of Corrections says is geared toward rehabilitation. And beginning in July, prisoners will begin filling the facility’s 1,536 beds, after more than a decade of debate, planning and construction.

The arrival of the institution’s first permanent -- though hopefully not too permanent -- prisoners marks the end of a long journey for the beleaguered Goose Creek prison, and according to Joe Schmidt, commissioner of the Department of Corrections, “the mood is very positive” in the leadup to prisoner transfers.

“Things are working as we planned,” Schmidt said. “The legislature was able to give us what we needed in terms of budget, and by the 15th(of July), we’ll have prisoners starting to arrive.”

Within 11 months, the prison plans to have more than 1,000 prisoners, including some 600 who have been housed out of state in Colorado. By September of 2013, that number will rise to about 1,450, nearing the facility's capacity.

Many have viewed the Goose Creek prison as a bit of an old-school Alaska boondoggle. But the Department of Corrections has pointed to the fact that the prison itself was constructed on time and under budget as proof of success so far.

Progress on the prison has moved steadily ahead since its inception in 2005, following the adoption of a bill in 2004 -- signed into law by then-Gov. Frank Murkowski -- that opened the way for a new Alaska prison.

There were a couple of hangups, however.

An old-fashioned Alaska boondoggle?

According to an audit of the project commissioned by the legislature in 2011 and released earlier this year, at one point during the planning, the prison was scaled back from a 2,200-bed, maximum security facility into its current 1,536-bed, mostly medium-security, iteration.

The audit said the reason for the change wasn’t clear, but Schmidt said that the reduction in prisoner population was prompted by research, not impulse. “We have maintained from the beginning that our numbers were solid,” Schmidt said, “and we had appropriate research before decisions were made.”

Schmidt said the decision was made after looking at effective methods of reducing recidivism -- the likelihood that an offender would commit another crime -- and officials settled on what’s known as “housing by custody.” Under that method, prisoners will be separated into different units according to the seriousness of their offense. According to Schmidt, this will separate “heavyweight,” long-term prisoners from offenders with less-severe crimes.

Schmidt said the reduction in the facility’s level of security was a positive in terms of the cost of the facility, because each cell wouldn’t need its own toilet and sink,which is standard in maximum-security prisons. Instead, prisoners have a communal shower and bathroom in each of the 10 units (with 128 beds apiece) at the new prison.

“Your average medium-custody prisoner doesn’t need all of that expense and all of that custody,” Schmidt said. He also noted that Alaska’s existing maximum-security prison, Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward, is currently under capacity. As of June 22, 520 of the 557 beds at Spring Creek were filled.

Another issue surrounding the project involved the water and sewer by the prison. Goose Creek sits on a 150-acre campus, and is isolated on a lonely road leading toward Point MacKenzie, across Cook Inlet from Anchorage. In order to handle the nearly 2,000 people who will occupy or be employed at the facility, a separate sewer-and-water-treatment plant had to be built, and those facilities had to be purchased using $20 million in general obligation bonds on top of the $244 million in construction costs.

 “The financing and construction of the prison and the supporting water and sewer plants would appear to have been integral to one another because the prison could not function without a sewage or water-treatment plant,” the audit said. “Conversely, without a prison, the sewage and water treatment plants would not have been needed.”

Additionally, the bonds used to construct the prison were supposed to be owned by the Mat-Su Borough, but the borough instead listed the bonds as being held in trust for the state of Alaska.

“As such,” the audit said, “the Mat-Su Borough’s accounting treatment for the prison and the related debt appears to be inconsistent with the letter of SB 65” -- the bill which allowed for the construction of the facility. “SB 65 called for the borough to own the prison (rather than to act as a mere custodian of a state-owned asset) throughout the 25-year term of the lease agreement.”

The strange accounting and general bonds provided for the purchase of the sewer and water plants led blogger Andrew Halcro to call the Goose Creek project “a travesty of taxpayer abuse.”

Going forward

Despite all that, and the fact that the cost of keeping a prisoner at Goose Creek will be $30-per-day higher than at the Hudson Correctional Facility in Colorado, the facility is opening. With $240 million and more invested, and a state-of-the-art facility constructed and sitting empty, it would likely look worse to leave it abandoned in the lonely woods along Point MacKenzie Road.

Plus, the Department of Corrections has repeatedly said that the facility isn’t about making money, it’s about providing support for prisoners and reducing recidivism. Schmidt said during a tour of the facility back in November 2011 that having family and friends nearby helps provide a better support network upon a prisoner’s release.

According to Leslie Houston, director of administrative services for the Department of Corrections, the process has already begun. In addition to the $29 million in operating costs for the 2013 fiscal year that begins July 1, the facility also secured a $5 million one-time appropriation for furniture, books, snow plows, and vehicles for patrolling the grounds.

In March, 30 prisoners started being shuttled to Goose Creek from the nearby Point MacKenzie Correctional Farm. Because it’s been so long since the prison was completed, officials needed to test some of the security and administrative systems.

“We needed to start testing some of the systems that are under warranty,” Houston said. “So there would be 30 inmates in and out every day, supervised by staff.”

Those prisoners wouldn’t sleep at Goose Creek, however -- with good reason.

“We didn’t even have mattresses until just recently,” Houston said.

But starting July 1, when state budget funds become available, the Department of Corrections will begin buying prison furnishings. Then, on July 15, prisoners should begin moving in. By September, 128 inmates should be housed at Goose Creek, attended by transfer staff. By the time the next wave of prisoners arrives in October, 95 new positions will need to be filled.

The prisoners housed out of state won’t begin arriving until April of 2013, when 635 inmates will be brought up from Colorado. By September of next year, all 1,050 prisoners housed in Hudson should be at Goose Creek.

Because of the reduced size of the prison, it won’t be long before Department of Corrections is looking for another possibility to contain the ever-growing number of prisoners that seem to be an ongoing problem in the U.S. as a whole. At the end of 2010, 1.6 million Americans were incarcerated, according to the most recent Bureau of Justice data. That year marked the first decline in prison population in four decades.

Goose Creek represents a temporary fix -- Schmidt said that current projections estimate that Alaska’s prisons will again reach capacity in 2016 or 2017, barring any major declines or increases in incarceration rates.

Which means that Alaska will have to either send its prisoners back out of state, or construct another new facility to contain them. Despite the benefits of keeping prisoners in their home state and close to their families, the sour taste left in the mouths of some Alaskans over the Goose Creek facility might see a heated debate about the what to do with the future of Alaska’s incarcerated.

Goose Creek, however, won't likely be going anywhere anytime soon. With some hoping for further development in the isolated area, built around the prison, the facility may soon become an institution, in both the literal and figurative sense of the word.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com