A Lemon Creek Correctional Center dorm has been left uninhabitable and all inmate visitations have been stopped after a prison riot Monday night.
According to sources within the prison, the incident was sparked by an unexpected source: phone service.
“That’s kind of the issue that everybody seems to be having,” said one inmate, who is being called “Alec” to protect his identity.
Other sources — anonymous and named, within the prison and outside it — independently confirmed the issues and facts.
“The whole place kind of blew up, you know what I mean?” said an inmate named Chris Davison, who is being held in more secure confinement after the incident. It is not clear whether he is considered one of the instigators of the riot.
No one was injured in the riot, but Department of Corrections spokeswoman Sherrie Daigle said by email Thursday that all visitation has been shut down since the incident and preliminary estimates measure the damage in the thousands of dollars.
The riot has exposed inmates’ agitation over a phone system that charges them far more than typical rates, then returns some of the revenue to the Department of Corrections.
“This is clearly so somebody just can get rich,” Alec said.
In September, the Alaska Department of Corrections debuted a new inmate telephone system operated by a Texas-based firm called Securus.
The new system allows inmates to call cellphone numbers — which were previously blocked — but it is more expensive and cumbersome for users. Local calls now cost $1 per 15-minute conversation, and long-distance rates can be $4 or more per 15 minutes, once fees are considered. Each call is charged the same, whether it lasts 20 seconds or 15 minutes.
The inmates don’t receive the bills; all calls are collect.
For three calls totaling 28 minutes of talk with one inmate at Lemon Creek, the Empire was charged $3.51. If the newspaper pays by credit card, the bill will rise to $10.46, or 37 cents per minute. That’s more expensive than calling a landline phone in South Africa from Juneau with AT&T.
In public documents, Securus stated that the fees are necessary for it to earn a profit while using new equipment that improves call quality — a previous complaint of inmates.
In December 2014, the Alaska chapter of the ACLU wrote the Regulatory Commission of Alaska — which regulates phone rates — urging it to deny the rate increase implemented last month.
Inmates must be able to coordinate their defense with attorneys, wrote Joshua Decker, executive director of the Alaska ACLU. They also need to talk to their families.
“Authorities, including the (Federal Communications Commission), recognize that family support and relationships are key to prisoners’ successful release. Family can help prisoners find housing, get a job, and stay on the state and narrow path,” he wrote.
On Thursday, he reiterated that statement. “It’s fundamental issue for prisoners to be able to call outside, to not just call their lawyer but also to call family,” he said.
Under the new calling rates, “everybody’s paying hundreds of dollars just to keep in contact with their family,” Alec said.
Davison, who said he is “finishing up damn near 11 years behind bars,” said the cost of the calls means he can’t afford to talk to his daughter. “I’m so far in debt, it’s not even funny. I can’t even afford a dollar for a 15-minute phone call.”
“For weeks, everybody’s been on edge about it,” Alec said. “The most important things we have in here are connections with our family.”
Lines of communication
In addition to the cost of calling, the phone system itself is balky. To talk for more than 20 seconds, the person receiving a call must register with Securus, handing over name, address, email and telephone number to a permitted database.
It’s a confusing process that took the Empire 20 minutes to accomplish.
Inmates can’t leave voicemail messages, dial for an operator or directory assistance or use 1-800 numbers. They can’t do three-way calls or use services like Vonage or Google Phone to get around the cost of long-distance calls.
All calls are monitored, and the prison or Securus can end them at any time. One such call to the Empire was abruptly stopped with a message: “This call is being terminated — no third-party calls are allowed.”
For that 16-second conversation, the Empire was charged $1.17.
DOC does have a list of numbers for which no fees are charged — generally, they’re attorneys and social welfare organizations like job centers and food banks.
Securus’ contract with the state says that calls are limited to 15 minutes “or such other time period as may be specified by the correctional facility.”
Until last month, that period was an hour at Lemon Creek. Inmates now are held to the 15-minute limit.
“In reality, the long-distance rate quadrupled,” the inmate said.
A particular feature of the phone system used by the Department of Corrections is that the department gets paid when inmates make phone calls. This arrangement is not unique across the country. Prison Legal News, a monthly magazine devoted to prison issues, has repeatedly covered the topic, as has the Prison Policy Initiative, which in 2013 found that 42 states (including Alaska) receive returns from their phone contractors.
In 2007, a request for proposals from the state for phone system providers said the company that offered the highest commission to the state would get the most points in an objective system that awarded the contract.
In fiscal year 2012, Prison Legal News found the state earned more than $85,000 in commissions from inmate calls on the phone system. The Empire has requested current figures from the Department of Revenue.
Alaska law requires prisoners to have reasonable access to a telephone, and even the state’s regulatory arm found that Securus’ relationship with the Department of Corrections amounts to a monopoly.
In June, the regulatory commission wrote: “We believe that Securus’ contract with ADOC largely creates a constructive monopoly for prison-based telephone service statewide and removes any competitive market pressure. Thus, inmates and their families and friends are vulnerable to exploitation.”
Despite that statement, the commission approved the rate hike Securus had been seeking.
“The only think that I ask is that you shed some light on the fact that they’re using us to make money,” Alec said.
The phone system wasn’t the only source of contention, of course. There were other contributing factors before Monday’s riot, sources said, including a “phase program” that allowed inmates to earn rights and privileges previously granted for free.
“And that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Alec said.
The spark into violence, however, does appear to have come from the latest development with the phone system. Sometime between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. Monday, calls were abruptly stopped, and inmates became agitated by the fact that they would be paying for those disrupted calls.
Alec and Davison each said a corrections officer commented on the phone situation in a way that the inmates took as an insult. “This was triggered by a smartmouth and these outrageous phone charges,” Davison said. “That sparked the whole god***m thing.”
In E dorm (also called E-mod), inmates gathered and organized.
They may have attempted to lure the corrections officer into the dorm from for an ambush, but inmates deny this.
About 11:15 p.m., an inmate wrapped a towel with eyeholes in it around his face. Events escalated as inmates covered E-dorm’s cameras and uprooted a table bolted to the dorm’s concrete floor.
The table was wedged against the door into the dorm, and a window into the dorm was broken. Bathroom partitions and bunk mattresses were ripped from their places and shoved against the broken window in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent corrections officers from flooding the dorm with pepper spray through the resulting hole.
About midnight Tuesday morning, officers called for the inmates to present themselves for cuffing, and by 12:20 a.m., the inmates had been removed from the dorm for decontamination. All are now being held in segregated custody, sources said.
Davison said he and a man named Justin Palmerson have been held in maximum detainment in connection with the incident.
“Me and Justin are sitting in the hole and getting buried,” Davison said.
Unnamed officials have said the coordinating figures in the incident are 1488ers, white supremacists whose numerical name contains references to the American and German Nazi parties.
Davison and Alec said they can’t talk about whether that’s true or not, but that the key thing to know is that prisoners feel isolated and a lack of phone time means lower chances of rehabilitation.
The ACLU’s Decker agrees.
“If we are locking people up for anything less than life in prison, they are going to get out,” he said. “We need to have systems in place to integrate folks back into society. A key part of that is talking with friends, talking with family, and getting a support system back into place.”