Palin , Prisoners and the Alaska Prison System
Moving on to issues closer to home for us, I was wondering about Governor Sarah Palin's record on prisons and prisoners. As Governor, the Alaska Department of Corrections is within her purview.
Alaska's prisons are sorely overcrowded. Since I don't have access to Alaska state court pleadings, I searched PACER for federal lawsuits against Palin on civil rights violations. Palin has been sued at least twice in federal court in Alaska during her year and a half term, once by a prisoner named Berry Jack who claimed he was raped for 3 days, treated at a medical facility, and then denied recommended therapy thereafter. His complaint is here (pdf.)
The Court ordered him to file an Amended Complaint. In his Amended Complaint (pdf), he said he wrote to Gov. Palin and she wrote back, saying she stood behind Anchorage Correctional Complex Superintendant Debbie Miller's decision to refuse him therapy. He states he wrote her again and "she called Alaska State troopers on me." He put in another request for treatment after which, he alleges, the Department of Corrections destroyed all his records. [More...]
The Court then mailed him some paperwork and it came back undeliverable -- I assume he was moved or put in the hole. The Court dismissed the case (pdf) because he didn't respond to its mailings or submit a change of address form. He will be allowed to refile.
I wonder if any reporters up in Alaska care to find prisoner Berry Jack and get his story.
Joe Schmidt heads up the Alaska Department of Corrections in her administration. The previous Governor, Frank Murkowski, cut off almost all funds for treatment in prison, including for sex offenders, obviously a terrible idea. Instead he decided to focus on post-release monitoring. The ACLU sued on behalf of three sex offenders.
Joe Schmidt admitted that cutting off treatment programs (which a court had ordered for sex-offenders) was the wrong approach. Gov. Palin tried to restore some funds for treatment programs in her budget this year. The legislature refused her funding request for sex offender treatement in prisons.
In her most recent budget, Gov. Sarah Palin included money to restart in-prison treatment, but the money for a sex offender program was taken out by the Legislature, Schmidt said.
"We asked for it this year. We are likely to ask for it next year," he said. Jason Brandeis, staff attorney for the AkCLU, said his agency is willing to wait and see what Schmidt can accomplish before embarking on a class-action suit on behalf of untreated prisoners.
While it speaks positively of Palin in terms of her intent, it's also an indication to me that she doesn't have much clout with her own legislature. That's a skill that is sorely needed in an executive. It's one that I repeated often as a reason I supported Hillary Clinton during the primaries: I believed she not only was right on the issues, but had the experience and clout in Washington to get her agenda through even a hostile Congress. We'll never know, but it raises flags to me about Palin in that area.
There's more on Palin's choice of Joe Schmidt to head the state prison system. The prison guards union has taken him to task for failing to keep them safe. (Lawmakers get earful at meeting on prisons; ACRIMONY: Guards allege that administrators don't take their safety seriously. Anchorage Daily News (Alaska) May 28, 2008, Lexis.com)(online version here)
The guards say the administrators are not doing enough to keep them safe in the state's overcrowded prisons. They say the department is not hiring enough guards and won't acknowledge dangerous health issues, like constant exposure to MRSA, a difficult-to-treat staph infection.
Schmidt and his deputy commissioners claim the union is playing dirty to get what it wants: more control over the department and its management.
Schmidt says he has made a lot of difficult changes since being appointed at the end of 2006 -- reducing overtime, promoting rehabilitation programs, and pushing aggressively for ways to reduce costs and the state's staggering 60 percent of offenders who end up back in jail. Gov. Sarah Palin has said he has her support.
While the Legislature last session approved funding for more officers and the department is consistent with national averages in its ratios of guards to prisoners, the number of inmates is growing and is predicted to continue to grow as a result of tough-on-crime laws. More prison space is being built, but not fast enough to keep up with the forecast growth.
The union passed a no-confidence vote against Schmidt:
The internal bickering between the union and administration reached a crescendo in April when the union passed a no-confidence vote against Schmidt. At the Tuesday hearing, Ramras told Schmidt he shouldn't have publicly said the union was "bullying" him or using "threatening" tactics.
A legislator called for an investigation.
The acrimony went on for four hours. Afterwards, Schmidt said he had extended the olive branch to the union several times since tensions started building about six months ago. The union has refused to meet with him to hash out issues, he said. "They just need to come to the table."
McGuire, who recently toured the Fairbanks prison, said the overcrowding and high number of prisoners per guard is creating a dangerous level of fear in the institutions -- among both prisoners and guards. "You have a real potential for something catastrophic to happen," she said outside the meeting.
"Unless you sentence someone to life, you have to accept at the outset that they are coming back to our community," said McGuire. "Punishing people is important. Housing them is important. Rehabilitating them is important."
Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, has called for an investigation by the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee to find the truth behind the union allegations.
Other legislators also have called for an audit of the Alaska Department of Corrections under Schmidt's leadership. (Corrections commissioner says he welcomes audit The Associated Press State & Local Wire May 11, 2008.)
Schmidt may be a good guy. (Legislature enters prisons dispute; INVESTIGATION: Corrections chief, union say they welcome an audit. Anchorage Daily News (Alaska) May 10, 2008.)
His focus is on changing how Alaska looks at prisons from a punitive system to a rehabilitative one. He says this has rubbed the old prison guard culture the wrong way.
Still, it seems the state's prison system is another example of Gov. Sarah Palin's less than stellar record when it comes to executive experience.
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