This winter, UniSea will employ four prison inmates at its Unalaska processing plant, following the company's decision to join a work release program run by the state Department of Corrections.
The goal of the "Transition to Work" initiative is to chip away at Alaska's high re-offense rate by helping qualified inmates to learn new skills and prepare for life after prison.
While UniSea's decision has sparked enthusiastic support from a number of community members who believe in that mission, it has also met with strong resistance from others who are concerned about safety.
KUCB's Laura Kraegel spoke with President and CEO Tom Enlow about why the company wants to participate.
TOM ENLOW: There are a couple of motivating factors. One is that it's getting tougher and tougher to recruit and retain processor workers. And secondly, we thought this was an opportunity for UniSea to do things that are part of our core values. We have a history of giving people second chances, so to speak. Oftentimes, people come to Unalaska because they're looking for a fresh start or a new opportunity, or there might be some motivating factor to come out to a remote area to work. And we feel like this program aligns really well with that kind of philosophy we have to be able to offer that second chance to people. Some of our best workers are people who have had a troubled past, worked through that, and just want an opportunity to show people they can do good things and be good people. So it seemed like a natural fit for us.
KUCB: What's your response to the Unalaskans who are concerned that having inmates here is going to make the community less safe?
ENLOW: I want it to be clear that we certainly are sensitive to the concerns and issues that many people expressed. Unalaska is our community too. We raise our families there, we live there, and we certainly wouldn't want to ever introduce any kind of element that would jeopardize that. We really feel strongly that the state is committed to this program, so they're not going to set themselves up — or set UniSea or Unalaska up — to fail. They're going to send us people who they believe will succeed in the program. So we feel good about it. And if it works, we plan to grow it.
KUCB: I do want to come back to that and talk to you more about the potential for expansion. But first, I want to ask you about how UniSea is preparing for this first round of the program. You're confident the company can do it without an unmanageable level of risk, so how are you getting ready in terms of security?
ENLOW: I think UniSea is already unique in that it has a dedicated security team within our company and within our campus there in Dutch Harbor. So they're going to work closely with [Unalaska's Department of] Public Safety to monitor the behavior of these employees. These people will be monitored 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. So we don't feel like we have to do a whole lot extra, but we certainly are going to be watching it closely.
KUCB: I'm not very familiar with UniSea's security operations. How big is that team and what kind of work do they do?
ENLOW: I think that staff is roughly about 10 people. They actually go through our physical plants, dormitories, and common areas and do routine, regular checks. Just to make sure everything is going well. They're responsive to our food and beverage outlets. They're kind of that layer of protection and security that I think helps supports Public Safety and the community. And they're just checking, almost like the hall monitor in school. Or the R.A. at the college dorm. They're just making sure everybody's behaving responsibly.
KUCB: In addition to those kind of straightforward safety concerns, some Unalaskans have wondered whether the island has enough of the behavioral health and addiction services that prisoners might need as they transition out of the corrections system. Whether our community can really give them the support they need to be successful. What's your take on that?
ENLOW: We've had the same kinds of questions and conversations with the state, and high-risk inmates are not going to qualify for this program. The people who are qualified for the program are people who are within six to eight months of being released. Who are on the good behavior list — I mean, they've been kind of model inmates — and already involved in programs structured to help them reintegrate into society. So of the inmate population, we're talking about the top five percent. I think it's also important to mention that we'll know more about these people than we know about a lot of the people we bring onto the island. When we introduce new people to Unalaska in the form of our processing workforce, oftentimes we know very little about them other than the information they've supplied us on an application. We've interviewed them, but we don't know them like the state knows these guys, right? So I feel good about that.
KUCB: And practically, what's going to happen this winter? UniSea is joining the program for the winter fishing season — for A season. Tell me about when these inmate employees are arriving and how long they're staying.
ENLOW: We're scheduled to bring four people, and they will just enter into our workforce with the normal, scheduled group that we bring out in January or late December to ramp up for A season. With the exception of our safety/security team and the upper management team, there'll be no difference in how these people are treated. No one will be able to tell who's who, and they will work throughout the A season. They will be part of any kind of normal season-ending layoffs that may occur when we no longer need all the people — or at their completed contract. They will go back to their facilities and prepare for their upcoming discharge back into society. And what we're hopeful for is that that will be a positive experience for them and they will have a better opportunity to move on with their lives with some new work experience they can tell any prospective employer that they've had. And have a reference back to UniSea that they were able to successfully complete a work contract with us. And they'll have some cash in their pocket and a leg-up, so to speak, in getting back to a normal life.
KUCB: Those would all be signs of success for the inmates participating in this program — and for the DOC, I think, based on its stated goals of combating recidivism. But how is UniSea the company going to measure the success of this program? What factors will you be looking at as you evaluate?
ENLOW: I think first and foremost that we didn't have any issues or concerns with the individuals. You know, they didn't us cause any concerns or problems. That'll be noted. And then we'll look at their work performance, just like we evaluate each of the processors that come to us and work in our plants. We're not going to treat them special, we're not going to have a different set of standards for them than we have for our normal workforce, and we'll rate them and judge them at the end of the season like we do everyone else. For example, we do a post-season evaluation on each employee and we make them either a "re-hire" or a "non-re-hire," based on how it went. If we can classify these people as someone we'd bring back from another season — say, B season or next year's A season — I would consider that a success. And they will certainly have the opportunity, like any other employee, to complete the contract and — having a good work performance — to return to UniSea if they want to.
KUCB: So in terms of growing the program, you're open to inmates returning after they've been released. And you're open to having more than four inmates for future fishing seasons, if this first one goes well. How big do you see this getting, potentially? And does it represent any kind of major shift in UniSea's approach to hiring?
ENLOW: I think it's way too early to tell. Even if the program is successful, I don't ever anticipate it being more than half a dozen to a dozen people on any given time. And keep in mind our workforce in the A season is 700 to 800 people, so it'd be kind of a drop in the bucket, so to speak.
KUCB: You mentioned that recruiting and retaining workers is hard right now and that this program could help with that a bit. But stepping back, what's actually making it hard to hire?
ENLOW: The only thing that's really causing me any concern right now is just the economy in the Lower 48, where people are able to find pretty good-paying jobs nearby and don't want to leave their families or leave home to venture off into Alaska — remote Alaska — to work if they don't have to. There are always those people who are looking for some fun and adventure, and those are the people we try to go after and target, because we want people who are very excited about coming to Unalaska to work.
KUCB: Former DOC commissioner Dean Williams has said that inmates are very excited to come to Unalaska because of this opportunity to work outside of prison and to prepare for life after. He's said they're motivated to do well and work hard and really seize this chance. But Williams is no longer running the department or overseeing the program. He's out, as Alaska's new governor, Mike Dunleavy, appointed a new commissioner last week. Nancy Dahlstrom is a former legislator. She's a Republican from Eagle River, who will now be in charge of the DOC and this particular "Transition to Work" program. Do you have any idea if that new leadership is going to change things or if they have any specific plans yet? Because the Dunleavy administration has said that they're going to take a long look at the state's budget and see where they can save some money.
ENLOW: We don't. In the upcoming weeks, we're going to be in close communication with the Department of Corrections office. I would think it'd be unlikely for the new administration to come in and yank a program like this that's had some success and has some traction moving forward. But you never know. It's a new administration, right? We're going to encourage and lobby that the program stays intact and moves forward. But we have not received any indication — one way or the other — that there will be any changes in the program.