Since 1988 Alaska's prison population has grown by 57 per cent, and the rate of incarceration has increased by 18 per cent, while over the same period the overall state population grew by only 16 per cent. The increase in the number of people under the supervision of the Alaska Department of Corrections shadows a much greater expansion in the prison population in the nation as a whole. Over the last decade the overall U.S. prison population has almost doubled. At the end of 1997 a total of 1,244,554 individuals were incarcerated in federal and state prisons; the combined jail/prison population was over 1.7 million; and the U.S. rate of incarceration was one of the highest in the world.
The figures presented in this article have been drawn primarily from data published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics as reported by individual states under various cyclical reporting programs. In some categories they do not precisely match those figures held by the Alaska Department of Corrections. Since it is impossible to reconcile all figures for all years, it was decided to rely on the latest published BJS figures for this article for those years and categories for which they were available.
Table 1 presents figures on prisoners in Alaska and throughout the nation as a whole. Unlike most states, Alaska has essentially a unified prison/jail system.
At the end of 1988, Alaska imprisoned 2588 individuals. At that time the state population, according to Alaska Department of Labor figures, was approximately 535,000. A decade later, the state population had grown to approximately 621,400 and the total number of prisoners held by the state had risen to 4067, an increase of 57 per cent in the number of people incarcerated. The rate of incarceration per 100,000 population also rose over this period, from 355 to 420, an increase of 18 per cent (Figure 1; Tables 1 and 2). (Rates are based on the number of prisoners sentenced to more than one year.)
The number of individuals supervised by the state on probation or parole has also risen since 1988, but not as steeply. In 1988 the state oversaw 3483 probationers and parolees. By the end of 1998, the total had risen to 4380, a growth of slightly less than 26 per cent (Table 3).
This growth in the state correctional populations parallels a similar expansion which is occurring throughout the country. In 1988 federal and state prisons held a total of 627,600 individuals. By the end of 1997—the last year for which figures are available—the total U.S. prison population had grown to 1,244,554—an increase of 98 per cent. When the number of individuals held in jails is added to the prison figure, the total number of prisoners in the U.S., by mid-year 1997, was over 1.7 million. Over the same time, the national probation and parole population grew almost 43 per cent, from 2,764,460 to 3,946,921. The general U.S. population increased only 9.5 per cent.
In Alaska, the rise in the prison population has been accompanied by a substantial increase in the budget of the Department of Corrections, from slightly less than $85 million dollars in FY88 to $153 million in FY99. The DOC budget is by far the largest of the state justice agency budgets. Although all justice agency budgets have grown over the last decade, Corrections has increased the most—by almost 80 per cent . (The budget of the Department of Education, a non-justice agency, is included in Table 4 for comparison purposes.)
Despite the increase in the corrections budget, the extended rise in the state prison population has resulted in facility overcrowding, a problem which is paralleled in the nation as a whole. (In Alaska, the last major facility to be built was Spring Creek Correctional Facility, which opened in mid-1988.) According to figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, at the end of 1997 federal prisons were operating at 119 per cent of capacity and state prisons were at 115 per cent of highest capacity.
Alaska's fifteen main prison facilities have a design capacity of 2603 and an emergency capacity of 2691. According to BJS, at the end of 1997 Alaska's prisons were being operated at 147 per cent of design capacity. However, by the beginning of this year state facilities overall were operating below both emergency and design capacities: 2601 inmates were held in the fifteen main institutions on January 1, 1999.
This reduction in crowding was due to a slight drop in the total corrections population from 1997 through 1998 and, more directly, to the increased use of out-of-state facilities. At the beginning of this year, 852 Alaska prisoners were being held in a private correctional facility in Florence, Arizona; another 35 were held in other states and by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (Table 5). (These figures are for January 1, 1999; totals discussed earlier in this article were for December 31, 1998.) This out-of-state total was almost 22 per cent of the total state correctional population (including those in community residential centers). In effect, the privately-operated prison in Arizona is Alaska's largest facility.
(The item in the DOC budget for out-of-state contracts grew 87 per cent between FY98 and FY99, from $7,759,600 to $14,512,300.)
According to figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 1997, thirty-one states with overcrowding in their correctional facilities dealt with the problem by placing prisoners in local jails. Another fourteen, including Alaska, placed prisoners in federal facilities or in facilities in other states, including private, for-profit, prisons. Among these fourteen, in 1997, Colorado had placed the most prisoners out-of-state—1,009 inmates, or 7.5 per cent of its total inmate population. Montana had placed the highest percentage of its prison population in out-of-state facilities—17 per cent or 381 inmates. In 1997, Alaska had only 332 inmates out-of-state, 7.9 per cent of its total population. As mentioned earlier in this article, by the end of 1998 the out-of-state population had grown to 22 per cent. The 1998 figures for the other states are not yet available.
According to data presented in the 1997 Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, over 69,000 prisoners throughout the country, or 5.5 per cent of the total national sentenced prison population, were being held in private facilities at the end of 1997. These inmates occupied approximately 97 per cent of the total capacity of these private facilities. An expansion in the overall prison capacity of about 40 per cent was anticipated within a year to a year and a half. The stock of some of the private facilities is publicly held and traded on the major exchanges. The facility in Arizona with which Alaska contracts is owned by Corrections Corporation of America, one of the oldest and largest of the private prison companies. This corporation recently merged with Prison Realty Trust; the stock of the new entity is traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
Demographics of Alaska Institutions
The picture of those incarcerated by the state of Alaska is predominantly one of young male inmates, of whom more than one-half are members of racial or ethnic minorities. Of the 3,488 individuals under the supervision of the state (including the private facility in Arizona), 3,269 were men and 219, women. Seventy per cent—2,446 individuals—were less than forty years old.
Members of two minority groups are incarcerated at levels very disproportionate to their percentages in the general populations: Native Americans and African Americans. The number of Alaska Natives and American Indians incarcerated at the beginning of the year was 1,232—35 per cent of the inmate population. The number of blacks incarcerated was 479, or 14 per cent of the inmate population. According to Alaska Department of Labor figures, Native Americans comprise just under 17 per cent of the general Alaska population, and African Americans, 4.5 per cent.
The inmate totals for the other racial and ethnic groups categorized were less than their representation in the general population. The total number of whites incarcerated were 1,588, or 45.5 per cent of the inmate population; Asians, 65, or 2 per cent; Hispanics, 89, or 3.5 per cent. Whites comprise 74 per cent of the total Alaska population; Asians, 4.6 per cent; and Hispanics, 4.9 per cent.
Of the total 3,488 inmates, 3,014 were imprisoned for a felony; 469, for a misdemeanor; and 5, for violations. In another breakdown of this total: 1,792 were held for a crime of violence; 269 for a crime against property; 399 for a crime of substance abuse; and 1,028 for crimes of other categories—including probation/parole violations not involving a new charge, immigration charges, contempt of court, witness tampering, failure to appear and others.
The United States now has one of the largest prison populations in the world—if not the largest—and its rate of incarceration is also one of the highest. According to figures from a 59-nation survey conducted by the Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C., in 1995 the United States imprisoned more people than any other country in the world, and the U.S. rate of incarceration was second only to the rate in Russia (Table 6). All other countries with democratic political systems showed rates of incarceration which were substantially lower. (It should be noted that these rates are based on populations of both sentenced and unsentenced prisoners, while the national rates cited earlier in this article reflect only those prisoners sentenced to more than one year. By mid-1997 the total U.S. population of sentenced and unsentenced prisoners, in both jails and prisons, was over 1.7 million.)
This article has presented basic data on the area of state corrections and placed the data in both a national and international context; it has not examined the complexity of reasons underlying the extensive rise in the number of people incarcerated. The figures discussed here reveal that the state has been committing an ever-growing amount of resources to corrections, particularly for incarceration, and suggest that this channeling of resources will not end soon.