Something doesn't appear to be right at the Alaska's Department of Corrections. Some of the events described below date from April 2008, but one of them is as recent as December 2008. I researched the issues quite fully and could not find references to any substancial changes in procedures or approach since the problems started. As a matter of fact, the excuses offered by the very people in charge suggest that there was never any intention to take any measures to address a number of grievances.
I have separated the issues according to the people responsible, to show the consistency in their responses to criticism. They are: Joe Schmidt, Commissioner for the Department of Corrections, Dr Rebecca Bingham, Clinical Director for the same department and Governor Sarah Palin, who's responsible for the appointments of heads of departments.
I must point out that what brought these issues to my attention was a brief article in the Anchorage Daily News about Governor Sarah Palin choosing Commissioner Joe Schmidt to be next in line to take the reins as governor of Alaska should anything happen to herself or lieutenant governor Sean Parnell. Sarah Palin and Joe Schmidt attended Wasilla High School together and she appointed him to the top job in the Department of Corrections when she was elected governor in 2006.
A comment on another article, (Stumper, by Andrew Romano, Newsweek) prompted some more digging into the problems faced by prison staff and inmates.
Posted By: akcorrec (October 8, 2008 at 1:33 AM)
"I am a female and work at Alaska’s only maximum security prison. Sarah Palin appointed a good buddy of hers to be our Commissioner of Corrections, Joe Schmidt. Joe Schmidt has deliberately made management decisions that have made our jobs, as correctional officers, more life threatening.
We tried going to Sarah Palin with our concerns but she wouldn’t listen to us. We then decided to submit a ‘no confidence’ vote in Schmidt. Out of the 733 correctional officers working in the state of Alaska over 500 of us voted. Out of those, less than 20 said they had confidence in Schmidt. The rest of us voted ‘no confidence’ in his leadership. This was unprecedented. At no time, before Schmidt was appointed as our commissioner, had we ever initiated a ‘no confidence’ vote in one of our commissioners.
Surely now, we thought, our governor Sarah Palin will hear and investigate our concerns regarding Joe Schmidt. That didn’t happen. Rather, she publicly said that she stood by Schmidt and that 97% of Alaska’s correctional officers are just a bunch of "disgruntled employees".
MRSA is running rampant in our institutions and we are deliberately being understaffed. Joe Schmidt is not only allowing understaffing but is actively encouraging it.
Prisoners with MRSA are being treated but not officially diagnosed with the bacterium. By not having cultures done, to determine the presence of MRSA, they are then able to be released right back out into the general prisoner population. If they were officially diagnosed then they’d have to be medically isolated. Consequently other prisoners and staff members keep contracting MRSA.
When a staff member contracts it, we’ve had two new cases in the last month and a half alone at my facility, they are told to "pin point exactly" where in the institution they contracted it. It’s a bacterium that can only be seen under an electron microscope yet we’re supposed to say exactly where we got it???
The department, under Joe Schmidt’s leadership, will not pay medical costs or reimburse leave time used, for any staff members that come down with MRSA unless they can prove that they got it at work. The very same place that contagious prisoners are being treated and then sent back home to their cells to expose every other prisoner and staff member they come into contact with.
We are also constantly under staffed. Rather than calling officers in on overtime, when we’re under manned, we’re left short handed. There are many officers willing to come in and work. All the department has to do is ask.
We also have mandatory posts that are never to be left unmanned. They are being manned by "phantom" officers. Which is to say one officer assigned to two posts. The officer’s name will be filled in, on paper, as filling in a certain post when in actuality he or she is working another one as well.
Twice, in the last year, we’ve had "man down" alarms go off in the facility and not enough officers to be able to allow anyone to respond to the emergency. By the grace of God, both times, the alarms were accidentally set off and no officer’s life was in actual jeopardy. But we may not always be so fortunate. When that happens, whether an officer loses his or her life to MRSA or a prisoner assault, we’ll be able to credit Sarah Palin and Joe Schmidt with murder."
Prisongate, in three parts.
The Alaska Correctional Officers Association gave the state corrections commissioner Joe Schmidt a "no confidence" censure vote on Tue, April 22, 2008. ACOA union members voted 514 to 19 against Schmidt.
Overcrowded prisons, a drug-resistant skin infection being passed around the prisoner population and staff, plus a no-confidence vote for Commissioner Joe Schmidt are some of the problems faced by Alaska's Department of Corrections.
It is accepted that Alaska's jails are filled beyond capacity. But there are differing opinions about whether the state is doing enough to keep the facilities safe and clean.
There are more inmates than ever at Anchorage Correctional Complex. Alaska Correctional Officers Association, which represents officers, says the state is reducing the number of guards patrolling the jails.
Commissioner Joe Schmidt and his deputy commissioners claim the union is playing dirty to get more control over the department and its management. "I felt bullied," he said.
Schmidt claims 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. .
Governor Sarah Palin released this statement at the time:
April 22, 2008, Anchorage, Alaska – Governor Sarah Palin today expressed her full support for Department of Corrections Commissioner Joe Schmidt. The Alaska Correctional Officers Association voted today in favor of a "no confidence" measure.
"Commissioner Schmidt has my full support as he and his team continue to bring remarkable reforms to the Department of Corrections," Governor Palin said. "As Commissioner, Joe has emphasized recruitment and hiring new correctional officers, bringing 34 new officers on board in FY 2007 with an additional 43 authorized for FY 2008. Joe’s strength is his respect for the hard work and talent of his department’s employees, and his understanding of the role the department plays in protecting the public, while providing offenders with the opportunity to successfully return to society. Joe has my unconditional support."
Rebecca Bingham is the Department of Corrections Clinical Director.
MRSA is rampant behind bars in Anchorage. The guards say the administrators are not doing enough to keep them safe in the state's overcrowded prisons. They say the department won't acknowledge dangerous health issues, like constant exposure to MRSA, a difficult-to-treat staph infection.
But the Clinical Director refuted that claim. "Once they are in here, as long as the institution is keeping things relatively clean and the inmates and officers are washing their hands frequently, it really has a much lower level than the outside," said Dr Rebecca Bingham. She also said that although the DOC doesn't track cases of MRSA, she believes there are four unconfirmed cases of the infection.
The state says it is doing its best to keep the jails clean and safe.
A more recent case illustrates Dr Bingham's attitude to prisoners' health.
Joseph Alexie, an Alaska Native, died of tuberculosis on December 9, 2008, while held at Red Rock correctional center in Arizona. Alaska Department of Corrections has a contract with Red Rock to house Alaskan inmates. Although Joseph Alexie was in Arizona when he died, he was governed by the Alaska's department health standards.
"Occasionally villages will have an outbreak of tuberculosis where quite a few people get exposed and go on the INH treatment, but it is pretty rare in the United States for someone to die from it," said Clinical Director Dr. Rebecca Bingham.
Myra Colley, Joseph Alexie's cousin, had a different view."He kept going and trying to get checked up, but they kept sending him away telling him it was bronchitis, or this or that, and they were just giving him a wrong diagnosis every time, without really giving him any medical attention."
His family said no matter what his crimes, he should not have died behind bars from a controllable and treatable disease.
Though bound by federal laws not to talk about the health of specific inmates, Dr Bingham said that if they had known an inmate was that sick, they would have treated him. "Joseph didn't tell anyone he was feeling bad in time."
Joseph Alexie was set to get out of jail in June 2009.
Sarah Palin has been sued by a prisoner named Berry L Jack, who claimed he was raped for 3 days, treated at a medical facility, and then denied recommended therapy.
Jack brought the suit against Sarah Palin and Debbie Miller, Correctional Superintendent at the Mat-Su pre-trial facility, Palmer, on March 10, 2008.
"I was raped and beaten for 3 days while in the custody of the Department of Corrections. The Anchorage Sexual Assault Response Team and the State Troopers told the DOC that I needed extensive therapy. The answer was NO.
One mental health worker said to me: "Everyone needs a bit of a stiff dick stuck inside of them from time to time."
I made many requests for treatment and orders came down from Debbie Miller that the answer was no and for me to deal with it.
I wrote a letter to Governor Palin asking for help and her first letter said she supported Debbie Miller. On December 23 I wrote to the governor again and she turned the State Troopers on me.
On March 12 all my evidence court documents were destroyed by the DOC."
The outcome of Mr Jack's civil rights court case, June 2, 2008:
Berry L. Jack, a self-represented prisoner, filed a civil rights complaint, which
this Court screened as required under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B) and 1915A.1 Mr.
Jack then filed an amended complaint, as permitted by the Court, but since that
time, mail sent to him has been returned to the Court, and Mr. Jack has filed no
notice of change of address.
It looks like, having made the effort to file a lawsuit, Berry Jack has gone missing while his case was being dealt with by the Court. It's very unlikely that anybody will go to the trouble of finding out what happened to him. Neither Sarah Palin nor Debbie Miller had to respond to his allegations.
It's interesting to note some similarities in the attitudes of these people in positons of power, as described above.
Joe Schmidt feels victimised and bullied, Dr Rebecca Bingham denies any responsibility for either case and ultimately blames a prisoner for his own death. Sarah Palin famously feels victimised all the time, denies responsibility for anything and is very good at blaming others for her mistakes, ill-judgement and shortcomings. (As seen in her dealings with criticism by members of the media.)
For people who constantly say that they are all about honesty and accountability, they seem to close ranks and collude to deny wrongdoing, suppress any attempts to verify the truth and are very quick to apportion blame to others.
These are the things that seem to define the ethos of Sarah Palin's office. After so many newspapers columns dedicated to Troopergate, perhaps some attention should be given to what, in my opinion, amounts to Prisongate.
This article appeared on my blog on February 28, 2009. Some readers expressed concern over the fate of Mr Berry Jack, so I did some further research and posted an update:
I found Mr Jack in the system after June 2nd. For court case details, click on link. Navigate through the tabs to find dates, etc. It seems, quite simply, that the prison authoritites couldn't find Mr Jack to deliver mail connected to his civil rights case, but they managed to find him when the time came for him to face criminal charges... he was sentenced to four years behind bars for second degree theft.
More on Joe Schmidt, ADN and KTUU (page 1)
Joe Schmidt's web page.
Joe Schmidt on palingates.
Rebecca Bingham on MRSA (page 2 of KTUU report)
Joseph Alexie's case.
Berry Jack's claim, amended claim and court civil rights case outcome.
Article about assault on Berry Jack, ADN.
Berry Jack's court criminal case details, after June 2nd.
Newsweeks Stumper article and akcorrec's comment.
Sarah Palin's choice of next in line, ADN.
Governor Sarah Palin's website press archive.
Post about Human dignity on palingates
American Civil Liberties Union, Alaska.