Questions remain after SCCC assault
WOLFGANG KURTZ | THE SEWARD PHOENIX LOG
Spring Creek Correctional Center is one of thirteen State of Alaska correctional facilities in Alaska. Of those it is one of two prisons designated as maximum security, and rated and staffed for close-custody inmates. Dedicated in 1988 SCCC has had a stellar record of public and staff safety that was unquestioned until recently. According to current and former staff, recent measures purportedly advanced to cut costs have put that record in jeopardy.
On Oct. 24 Spring Creek Correctional Center officer Kim Spalding was pinned and beaten around the head and body for about 50 seconds before managing to wield a pocketknife he had on his person. After Spalding stabbed two of the inmates repeatedly, the attackers relented and ceased the assault. Spalding, who had a previous 15 year career as a police officer, had been working at SCCC for 5.5 years.
Alaska State Troopers, the Seward Fire Department and Seward Volunteer Ambulance Corps responded to the inmate attack. According to SCCC staff, an alarm had been raised in another part of the complex and while personnel was occupied the correctional officer, working in a housing area, was attacked by three inmates.
Spalding was treated at Providence Seward Medical & Care Center that afternoon and released in the evening. After a few weeks of administrative leave, Spalding was notified that his employment at SCCC was terminated. It was the possession of the pocketknife that resulted in Spalding’s dismissal proceeding, currently in arbitration. The use of the weapon is not at issue, as Spalding was entitled to employ any means of self defense after the assault began.
According to Spalding and other staff at SCCC, threats had been levelled at Spalding and administrative staff was aware of the elevated risk but no further action was taken previous to the assault. The threats were not made to Spalding directly and he became aware of them only incidentally.
In this context, Spalding then chose to take the precautionary measure of carrying a ordinary pocketknife. As Spalding explains, it was not uncommon for correctional officers, even supervisory staff, to carry pocket knives in violation of SCCC policy. As far as State of Alaska statutes are concerned, carrying a pocketknife is not considered concealing a weapon, Spalding points out.
However, with the exception of tactical teams, correctional officers at SCCC are permitted enforcement tools in compliance with a minimal level of force policy as set forth by the State of Alaska Department of Corrections which administers SCCC. This is termed Level One and under that internal standard the only weapon, concealed or otherwise, that is allowed at SCCC for shift use is pepper spray.
In view of this policy, corrections staff point to this incident and others including an assault at Cook Inlet Pre-trial facility in Anchorage as an indication that further procedures and methods need to be developed in advance of future situations. One correctional officer asserts that further arming of staff isn’t the only answer. “We’re not looking at changes in levels of force, just more options and education in using the tools that we have. There’s procedures and other tools used throughout the corrections field. We can adopt policies that work, have worked in other institutions.”
The video recording is stark evidence of the necessity of Spalding’s defense as the inmates beat and kicked him for almost a minute before Spalding was able to defend himself, stabbing two of the attackers repeatedly. “It was only his training and experience that kicked in that saved him. 80 to 90 percent of us would have been dead,” one correctional officer commented referring to Spalding’s career in law enforcement.
“These were big guys, two white power dudes and an islander,” another staffer added. “I won’t say it’s all luck, but [Spalding] is lucky to be alive.”
At present, with one housing mod empty, SCCC is far below capacity. However staff points out that administration claims of CO to inmate ratios recently cited by media are deceptive. While on duty, some correctional officers are relegated to administrative and training duties and aren’t actively policing the inmate population. Also, the facility has not had 8-hour shift positions on inmate duty to date.
However, with the opening of a new correction facility at Goose Creek in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, the Department of Corrections has had plans to re-integrate Alaska’s outsourced inmate population, presently housed in a private institution in Colorado. Some of the maximum security, or close-custody, prisoners will be bound for SCCC. With this population change and the trend of Alaska’s existing inmates becoming more unpredictable and violent, some correctional officers are questioning how long it will be until another assault occurs.
“Colorado inmates are going to bring in different behaviour. Arizona was worse, but these are evolving groups and with this importation of influences they all bring something new to the game,” one CO explained. “These guys that attacked [Spalding], they’re at the top of the food chain now. They’ve got credibility which doesn’t serve a good example. It just all adds up to a different level of requirements for correctional officers.”
Without the benefit of 7 days of 12-hours shifts alternated with 7-day weeks off, staff cites the a disadvantage in recruiting new correctional officers as a complicating factor. They also point to difference in culture with younger, less experienced recruits. “A lot of incoming trainees are not ex-military, they don’t have that underlying expectation of relying on the guy next to them. It leaves a confidence gap between [correctional] officers,” commented one SCCC CO.
For SCCC, DOC recently did away with the 10 percent geographic differential for working in Seward. The State of Alaska has also moved to a less attractive PERS Tier 4 investment based retirement plan and away from PERS pensions in Tiers 1 through 3. Between these changes in work conditions, risks and benefits, SCCC staff interviewed for this story wonder what is going to attract qualified applicants to correctional officer jobs at Spring Creek Correctional Center.
Upon contacting SCCC, LOG staff was referred to DOC media contacts. Phone calls to DOC were not returned by press time.