As inmates in the work-release program at Kenai’s Wildwood Correctional Complex prepare to go to work at the town’s seafood canneries, the Alaska Department of Corrections is preparing for what Corrections Commissioner Dean Williams called the program’s “next step” in a March 7 presentation to Kenai’s City Council. Wildwood inmates serving the last months of their sentence will now get an early start on their return to outside life by living in dormitories at Kenai’s Pacific Star Seafoods cannery.
“What I’ve been proposing … is instead of these people coming back to the facility at night, and because PacStar has all kinds of housing, why wouldn’t we just have them finish out the last part of their sentence here in the fish processing plant, where now they’re employed, they’re around other people that are working?” Williams said. “They have function again, they have purpose in their life.”
Since Wildwood began allowing selected groups of inmate volunteers to hold jobs at Kenai’s fish processors in 2012, the inmates have been bused daily between the prison and their workplaces. When the work-release inmates go to work at the canneries this year, they’ll be living under electronic monitoring in dormitories on-site. Room and board costs will be paid from their wages.
Inmates in the last year of their sentence can apply to work 12-14 hour shifts at the canneries. Those who pass a screening test earn minimum wage plus overtime. The program had 20 participants its first year, and has had up to 50 participants since, said Wildwood Superintendent Shannon McCloud. The cannery program has “gotten very popular,” she said.
“(Cannery managers) who were apprehensive about putting people there, we changed their minds,” she said. “We hope to keep it going.”
The inmates housed in the cannery will be under an electronic monitoring system that triggers an alert if they leave a certain area. McCarthy said Wildwood has never had an electronically-monitored work-release inmate leave their designated area.
In fall 2016 Wildwood began a second program allowing inmates to work in the community — this one, the vocational work release program, focused on work experience in high-paying technical jobs such as welding, mechanics, and cooking by putting graduates of Wildwood’s in-house vocational education program to work in local businesses such as Dan’s Automotive, Lee’s Heavy Equipment, and Everything Bagels. McCloud said though there haven’t been any recent Wildwood vocational education graduates eligible for this work-release program, Wildwood officials are still looking for more local businesses interested in participating.
Williams said work-release is “one of the best tools we have for helping to reduce our recidivism and helping these people become productive citizens again.”
Recidivism — the rate at which people released from prison are re-arrested for new offenses — is a key element of Alaska’s crime problem, Williams told the Kenai City Council. He said reducing it has been a priority focus since his appointment as Corrections Commissioner in January 2016.
Of the 12,000 to 13,000 people a year released from Alaskan prisons, about 4,000 to 5,000 return within six months, and 7,000 to 8,000 do so within three years, Williams told the Kenai Council.
“So if you want to know why we have an ongoing crime issue in this state, it’s because our recidivism is 65 percent, compared to Michigan, which is 28 percent or 30 percent,” Williams said. “Here’s the one key thing we know about recidivism: people must have a place to live, and they must have a job or a function or something to do.”
Williams also gave Kenai council members practical reasons why “people who step outside the facility, who are starting to do well, do no good by coming back inside the facility.” Those who move in and out of Wildwood sometimes become targets for other prisoners trying to coerce them into smuggling banned items.
“Once you’re out in the environment, you’re motivated to be successful,” Williams said. “When you’re out having a job, you have a lot to lose. It’s the guys back behind the walls who don’t have anything to lose.”
Wildwood presently doesn’t have any inmates working outside the facility because of a debate over worker’s compensation obligations that arose after a worker-inmate was injured at Pacific Star on Jan. 23. Pacific Star representatives argued that the company wasn’t obligated to pay worker’s compensation for the injury because the worker was an inmate, Williams said.
Managers at Pacific Star hadn’t responded to requests for interviews by press time Thursday evening.
According to Alaska statute, inmates directed to work by Department of Corrections officials are exempt from the Alaska Worker’s Compensation Act. Williams said the statute is meant to apply to prisoners assigned chores or maintenance work within a prison facility, or to public conservation projects outside it — a different type of activity than the voluntary paid jobs inmates are allowed to take outside of a prison.
“What I clarified with the company is that that statute does not apply because I am not directing the employment of the inmates,” Williams said. “The inmates are volunteering and we are not setting working conditions or anything else for the inmates. … That statute does not apply to private companies.”
After conversations between attorneys representing Pacific Star and his department, Williams said cannery managers have since agreed that work release inmates are subject to the same worker’s compensation coverage as the cannery’s other employees.
Department of Corrections Public Communications Officer Megan Edge said that with the worker’s compensation question settled, work-release inmates would be sent to cannery jobs again within a few weeks. McCloud said Wildwood has between 15 and 18 inmates approved for work-release.
Williams approached Kenai’s city government in December about plans to house work-release inmates at Pacific Star. His talk at the March 3 council meeting was about a legal question: Kenai city attorney Scott Bloom said at that meeting that housing inmates would be considered a governmental or institutional function, requiring a conditional use permit from Kenai’s planning and zoning commission in the heavy-industrial zone where the canneries sit, or else a city council ordinance waiving the requirement.
Though several council members said they’d support such an ordinance, the Department of Corrections later settled the question by changing their description of the use, according to Kenai City Manager Paul Ostrander. Corrections officials initially designated the housing at Pacific Star as a prisoner work camp, Ostrander said — an institutional function requiring a permit — but by removing that designation allowed the housing plan to proceed without city government action.