This winter, Unalaska's seafood plants could host a handful of prison inmates — if the community joins a work release program run by the state Department of Corrections.
DOC Commissioner Dean Williams proposed the idea to the City Council this week, citing interest from at least one local processor that he declined to name.
Williams said he'd like to start with four or five inmates, who would go through a thorough vetting and selection process. They'd work at plants and live at bunkhouses under strict rules and electronic surveillance.
"We're going to pick people whose behavior behind the walls has been exemplary," he said. "People who we've provided training to — carpentry, HVAC, refrigeration, and welding. Companies would love to have these guys."
In return, Williams said the inmates would find purpose, develop skills, and transition back into society. His goal is to chip away at Alaska's high rate of recidivism.
"My department releases 12,000 sentenced people every year," said Williams. "The problem is that 4,000 end up back in prison within the first six months, because they don't have a job and they don't have a place to live. You just can't cut the cord."
Williams said the program is already succeeding in Kenai and Cordova, where more than 20 inmates have worked at Pacific Star Seafoods and Trident Seafoods. A few were returned to prison for drug offenses, but he said most have become reliable workers.
In Unalaska, the proposal met with a mixture of open-mindedness and reservations.
City officials and residents raised concerns about how local police would be affected, whether the island has sufficient addiction and behavioral health services, and whether sex offenders would be allowed to participate.
"I've always considered this a safe community," said Councilor Roger Rowland. "My daughters could be out by themselves at night, leaving their workplaces or whatever. And that's probably my biggest concern: I don't want this to no longer be a safe community for young people and young girls."
Rachelle Hatfield supported the "much-needed program." She works in adult education and vocational training at the Aleutian-Pribilof Center run by the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
"These are our families," said Hatfield. "We owe them the right to give them the opportunity to have a better future, so we can all have a better future."
Mayor Frank Kelty said Unalaska will hold another community meeting after Williams confirms interest with local processors and the Trident plant in Akutan for the upcoming winter fishing season.
The commissioner said the program would provide financial support and equipment for Unalaska's police. He also said the community would be free to drop out at any time.