Looking for space: Wildwood close to capacity

Increasing inmate population at a local correctional facility is creating numerous logistical and financial challenges for state Department of Corrections officials.


Wildwood Correctional Center in Kenai housed an average of 400 inmates in 2010, up from an average of 370 three years earlier, forcing officials to find more space to house pretrial and convicted inmates.

DOC first recognized the problem at Wildwood -- a former military base in Kenai -- six years ago and looked at an unused building on the institution's property.

In late October, officials renovated Building 15 at the correctional complex, adding 62 beds. But capacity limits are pushed on a regular basis at Wildwood, said Bryan Brandenburg, DOC Division of Institutions director.

The DOC needed additional beds at Wildwood with little cost. Inmates refurbished the building, and maintenance employees removed harmful asbestos.

"(DOC) did much of the engineering and reconstruction of the building through our maintenance department and hiring inmate workers," Brandenburg said. "It helped to get it done with what money we had available."

The state allocated $287.5 million to the DOC in its FY2012 operating budget. The capital budget, which determines project funds, included $7.4 million with $890,000 directed toward Wildwood.

Key challenges at Wildwood include hiring and retaining a workforce of well-trained officers, reducing continuing deterioration of the facility and the backlog of maintenance that negatively impacts daily operations and the increase to the inmate population that is creating numerous logistical and financial challenges, according to the state's component budget summary for Wildwood.

Inmates housed in Alaska correctional institutions are separated by custody status. The DOC assigns prisoners to the appropriate security level facility based on criminal history and past in-custody performance.
Building 15 houses minimum custody, or low risk, inmates.

Contractors and maintenance staff installed a modular building for minimum security housing while renovations on Building 15 were made.

The original plan for Building 15 involved a work release program, Brandenburg said. He said he hopes the program starts at some point in the future.

The sentenced inmate population continues to grow, creating demand for more beds, but the limits of Wildwood's pretrial facility are approached daily. It has 115 beds.

"It's mostly pretrial," Brandenburg said. "Its limits get pushed on a pretty regular basis. There was a single day this week that it was one over."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska released the report "Rethinking Alaska's Corrections Policy" in March. One concern the report lists is "significant overcrowding, particularly in pretrial facilities."
Delays in trials are likely a factor in the number of people kept at the pretrial building, said Scot Leaders, Kenai district attorney, in an email.

From the prosecution's perspective, inmate placement is an issue left to the discretion of the DOC, he said.

"We are often aware that a defendant is likely to serve their time at a particular institution as a result of rehabilitative programs -- that are part of their sentence -- and location of those programs," Leaders said.

Treatment programs at Wildwood include a 48-week offender program and a men's residential substance abuse treatment. RSTA is designed to treat chronic and severe addiction in conjunction with criminality.
Andy Pevehouse, public defender, said in an email that more work is needed to reduce recidivism and the underlying causes of crime, like poverty and addiction.

Leaders said his office is aware of the limitations of Wildwood. Prosecutors often agree to different arrangements to lessen the strain on the institution provided the duty to public protection and fair cases are met, he said.

"We routinely agree to delayed (inmate placement), which allows the defendant and (Wildwood) to schedule a time for the defendant to do the jail service," he said. "We also agree to community work service in lieu of jail time."

Officials are unsure whether judges consider the limitations of Wildwood when sentencing.

"I have occasionally heard judges take the lack of adequate medical treatment at (Wildwood) into consideration in terms of bail and sentencing," Pevehouse said.

Alaska is one of six states working with a unified system, meaning the DOC operates both jails and prisons. Most states have county jails separate from prison systems.

If Goose Creek Correctional Center, approximately nine miles from Port MacKenzie, opens the DOC will house inmates at certain locations based on their custody status, Brandenburg said.

Offenders sentenced to a year or less would likely stay at Wildwood, and offenders sentenced to more than a year would likely stay at a sentenced facility, such as Goose Creek or Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward, he said.

The future of Goose Creek -- a $240 million, 1,536 bed minimum-security correctional center for long-term male felony offenders -- is unclear at the moment.

"With the opening of Goose Creek, as long as that happens, I think that the Department of Corrections will be able to manage the state's sentenced population fairly effectively," he said.

Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at jerzy.shedlock@peninsulaclarion.com.