Five hundred inmates are housed on more than 30 acres of land at Alaska's Spring Creek Correctional Center. Ironically, it is surrounded by one of the country’s most breathtaking national parks.
The Doc Block asked documentary producer Susan Carney via e-mail how this maximum-security prison is unique from others in the "lower 48."
Doc Block: What did you find at Spring Creek?
Susan Carney, Lockup producer: I was surprised at the differences I found at Spring Creek in terms of how the inmates treated each other and interacted. Though some of the inmates told me the facility was self-segregating, that was not evident. It was unusual to see inmates of different races hanging out together comfortably. That is rare in the prisons I've filmed in. Also, there was a much higher tolerance level among the inmates for sex offenders. There seems to be a larger number of inmates at Spring Creek incarcerated for sex offense charges and though they still keep a relatively low profile, they were not treated as lepers or constantly assaulted by the other inmates, like in other prisons.
Doc Block: Was the staff at Spring Creek different than in other places too?
Carney: The Correctional Officers (CO's) were on the 'individualistic' side and seemed to like the sense of isolation. All of the COs I met had come from other states and it was as if they had come to Alaska to escape life in the "lower 48." The officers had worked in prisons in other states but had sought out the wildness and relative newness of Alaska. Interestingly, many of the inmates had done the same thing; escaped their lives elsewhere to come to Alaska to either hide out or seek new adventures in crime.
Doc Block: Did you see any violence at Spring Creek?
Carney: The documentary crew came in on the tail end of a fight between two inmates. One inmate was taunting the other inmate, telling others in the chow line that he was a child molester. The accused inmate went after him. They had been separated and were being taken for medical treatment (there were no serious injuries) when we arrived with our cameras. Both inmates were then taken to the Lockdown unit. But overall, Spring Creek has a low incidence of violence. It appeared the COs stop fights before they escalate. All unruly inmates are immediately taken to Lockdown and no one wants to go there!
Doc Block: One of the inmates you interviewed was particularly violent. An officer billed John Bright as an “extreme management problem.” What did you think of him?
Carney: My impression was the same as with most of my encounters with such inmates - there is a deep rage and slight madness about the men who continually act out. They never express remorse and usually have justifications for their behavior. They aren't frightening or threatening to me - mostly because I think they enjoy being on television.
Doc Block: And what about Carl Abuhl? What was it like to interview one of the most notorious maximum-security prisoners who talks, so matter-of-factly, of murdering his cellmate?
Carney: I actually found it challenging. I am fascinated with human beings who act in such an aberrant way, hoping to learn something about them that may explain such disturbing behavior. Again, there is often something in this personality type that craves attention so they are willing to talk about themselves and their crimes. I also believe that life in prison and particularly Lockdown is so desperately lonely and violent that we (the crew) offer a brief respite from that during the interview and its prep. We always act cordially and kind when dealing with all inmates.
Doc Block: You interviewed an inmate, Cordell Boyd, who participated in a face-to-face mediation program where the murdered victims’ family member took him to task. How was it talking to him now that he’s been through this program?
Carney: In this specific case, I felt that Cordell tried to do the right thing by giving his victims' family members a sense of "closure" by talking with them, but Cordell was like many long term inmates - manipulative and looking for an angle from which he can benefit and "look good."
Doc Block: Spring Creek is home to something you would not expect to find in a maximum-security prison: a high school. What were your thoughts about the teacher’s comments that three of his smartest students were lifers in for murder?
Carney: Actually, it was encouraging. I strongly believe that one certain way to reduce violence in prisons is to provide programs - education, trade, jobs. All people tend to thrive when they are productive. Meeting young men who had only a future in prison was sad but not unusual - the hope would be that with an education they can still contribute in life - even if they are locked up.
Doc Block: What were your overall impressions of Spring Creek, a maximum-security prison set in such a breathtaking place?
Carney: I was fascinated with Spring Creek. The personalities of both the inmates and the COs made up an environment reminiscent of the TV show "Northern Exposure" - unique, quirky - not very prison-like in many ways. And then to have the prison set in such a naturally beautiful locale made it even more unique. The population is predominantly White but Blacks and Hispanics are present and, again, they did not self-segregate, as is the case in most prisons. And the Alaskan Native population, though small, was the only thing that differentiated the "look" of the inmate population.
Though it was a MAX it felt like a "kinder, gentler" prison. As many of the inmates told me, "If you have to do time- this is one of the best places to do it. No one bothers you; you can just do your time." Almost all of the correction staff there told us they didn't want their "secret" to get out. They fear too many people will move up to Alaska and ruin what they have.