Each year, about 12,000 prisoners are released in the state of Alaska. Three years after release, more than 60 percent of them will be back in prison. Lowering that recidivism rate has been a top goal of Alaska Department of Corrections Commissioner Dean Williams. And his department is trying to team with the city of Kenai to bring those numbers down.
The cycle is easy to imagine. You’re arrested and sentenced. While incarcerated, you lose your job, potentially lose your home. Without a strong support network, getting a foothold on those things again after release is tough.
“Is there a way that we can have these guys work at these fish processing plants and instead of having them come back to the facility at night, they sleep at the (plant) while we have them on electronic monitoring," asked Dean Williams, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Corrections.
Williams spoke to the Kenai city council this week. DOC works with the city to help inmates at Wildwood in a sort of work release program, where they’re able to keep working while serving their sentence to help keep their employment gap to a minimum. Williams says one of the downsides of the current system is that prisoners return to their cells at night after they’ve been outside all day, with access to drugs, alcohol and other contraband. He’d like to see prisoners finish off their last six months or a year under electronic surveillance, sort of easing them back into daily, law-abiding life.
“What I have been proposing is instead of these people coming back to the facility at night, and since (Pacific) Star (Seafoods) has all kinds of housing and other places, why wouldn’t we just have them finish out the last part of their sentence here, at the fish processing plant, where now they’re employed, they’re around other people who are working, they have function, they have purpose in their life again and because you have a local city ordinance, you would have to do something about that city ordinance to provide some sort of dispensation or waiver for us to work that sort of plan.”
Williams says he’s not lobbying the city to change anything, there’s either support for his idea or there’s not. The cannery is currently zoned as heavy industrial. In order for prisoners to be housed there, the state would have to apply for a conditional use permit, or the council could waive that requirement with an ordinance. To begin, the program would include 20-25 inmates. Williams says he’d like for them to be local, but if it works, there could be inmates from other parts of the state. The council seemed interested, but had some concerns. Mostly about how or if the local police department would have to be involved with two dozen more inmates in the community under electronic monitoring.
“What happens when an alarm goes off? Who’s going to respond to that? That’s really on us. Am I going to call the chief if something goes south? You bet I am. The point is that keeping track of these people is already a department function," Williams said.
The city’s administration will come up with some recommendations and possibly even have an ordinance drafted in time for the next city council meeting on March 21st.