June/July 1998

f r o m   t h e   i n s i d e

From the Inside

prison essayist Anthony Lee Brown

87 Percent

In past weeks, news programming in Alaska has been full of stories about prison overcrowding, legislation to build new prisons, and the controversy of private vs. state operated facilities, etc. In addition to frequent short articles, an Anchorage newspaper recently published a lengthy article devoted to problems in Alaska's prison system, specifically concerning the phenomenal increases in the number of prisoners being incarcerated by the State and the growing cost of prison management by the Department of Corrections (DOC). Although the article discussed possible causes and methods of addressing the overcrowding crisis, the gist of the article boiled down to three facts: Alaska has more prisoners than prison beds, the prison population is only foreseen to become larger, and it is going to cost a lot more than it already does to keep them imprisoned in the future.

Refreshingly honest aspects of the article included recognition that major factors contributing to rising prison populations and operating costs were vote-pandering legislation based upon political diatribe in the face of falling crime rates and the State's settlement of the much touted and complained of Cleary court case that had been filed in response to complaints concerning the unconstitutional practices of, and the neglect and abuse of prisoners by, DOC officials and employees.

Yet, the why and how of prison overcrowding and the expense of prison operations can only be effectively addressed by first answering the "who" -- Who is incarcerated in Alaska's jails and prisons? Absent from the article, and by any measure the greatest contributing factor involved, is the eighty-seven percent (87%) recidivism rate of Alaska's prison system. This statistic means that nearly nine out of ten persons who are placed in the custody of the DOC, regardless of the offense committed, will return to prison once released from custody. Specific to the present discussion, it also means that most prisoners now in the custody of the DOC have been there before. They have returned to prison again and again, either having committed more crimes or failed to satisfy the requirements of probation or parole.

Now, ask why? The responsibility for the recidivism rate rests with Alaska's legislators and DOC administrators. Legislators have compounded their failure to provide funding for treatment, education, vocation and life skills programs for prisoners with ineffective legislation, such as the adoption of long-term mandatory minimum sentences and mandated imprisonment as punishment for a number of crimes previously punishable by probation or fines. DOC administrators have failed to explore or establish programs that address the causes of criminal behavior or motivate prisoners to develop positive personal or social characteristics.

And, how? Both the legislature and prison officials have squandered available funds on an ineffective and inefficient bureaucratic culture more concerned with its own existence and continuing growth than in fulfilling the purpose and goals of penal administration as defined by Alaska's Constitution and common sense. By fostering a prison system based upon warehousing as punishment, rather than one based upon processes to address addictive behaviors and deficient education, vocation and social skills, they have also forsaken their responsibility to protect the public.

This is not to say that prisoners themselves are not, or should not, be responsible for their criminal acts. However, people are not born with predispositions for criminal behavior and there are few addictions or deficiencies of character, social abilities, or vocational skills that cannot be overcome by treatment, education, and healing. Yet, meaningful recovery and education processes are not merely missing from our prisons, they have been supplanted with the notion that those who commit crimes are not deserving of treatment, education, or healing and that the incarceration of prisoners in oppressive and barren environments can and will accomplish the same goals. The results are, well, what you have . . . an ever-growing need for prisons to incarcerate ex-prisoners, who are less likely to become productive citizens with each recycling.

The answer to prison overcrowding is not to be found in exiling prisoners to private prisons out of state, housing prisoners in tents, or in building more prisons, but in doing the job that legislators and corrections officials already profess to be doing, but aren't, and that is correcting the problem. Those who would have you believe otherwise are profiting financially or politically by their continued failure to serve the public through their support of a system that obviously does a great deal more harm than good. Given the present 87% recidivism rate, the public could be better served and protected if the most highly paid "correctional professionals" on the face of the planet simply did not go to work in Alaska's prisons today.

Beware of any politician beating the 'crime drum' in the face of falling crime rates, former DOC officials who now work for private prison interests, and a news media that must sensationalize the facts to make a profit. Each have their own interests at heart, not yours.


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