Sparsely populated Alaska has bulging prisons

With just over 300,000 people living in a total area of 590,000 square miles, overpopulation would seem the least of Alaska's concerns. Except in the prison system.

Almost 200 convicted felons from the state are housed in overcrowded federal prisons in the ''lower 48,'' and the Alaskan government has been under pressure from Washington for several years to build its own maximum-security facility.

Alaska's new governor, Democrat Bill Sheffield, has made a new 150-bed prison one of his top priorities. He also has issued an executive order removing the state Divison of Corrections from the Department of Health and Welfare and making it a separate cabinet-level department. Unless two-thirds of the legislators vote against the move, it becomes effective in 60 days.

The governor also proposes early release of non-violent prisoners to ease overcrowding in the state's jails. A bill filed in the legislature Feb. 21 would allow for the release of prisoners who have been convited of non-violent crimes and are within 90 days of release anyway.

Governor Sheffield's proposed budget for fiscal 1984 includes $42 million for the new prison, scaled down from the $50 million that outgoing Republican Gov. Jay Hammond had recommended.

Roger Endell, recently named director of the Division of Corrections, is expected to become commissioner of the new department. In a telephone interview, Mr. Endell pointed out that the problems of the state correctional system extend well beyond the need for one new prison.

Under a recent partial settlement of a federal court suit, he said, the state is obligated to improve housing conditions, medical care, and rehabilitation programs for prisoners.

Other tasks Endell says the new department will tackle include the closing of three inadequate regional jails and theel3UFquoteUnder a recent partial settlement of a federal court suit, the state is obligated to improve housing conditions, medical care, and rehabilitation programs for prisoners.

el3building of two new ones, improvements at other prisons and jails, and upgrading of the educational, job training, and work programs in the correctional system.

Alaska's jails and prisons have only 900 beds but contain some 1,500 inmates, according to Endell. He adds that with increased convictions and stiffer sentences resulting from the state's tough new criminal code, he expects the prison system will need 180 new beds annually in coming years.

Endell, who was on the faculty of the University of Alaska prior to his recent appointment and earlier held several positions in the state correction system, says that most crimes committed in Alaska against persons - assault, murder, and rape, in particular, are alcohol related. Studies have found that ''over 80 percent of felony offenders had either used or abused alcohol'' just prior to the crime. He adds that in travels to other ''circumpolar regions'' - Canada, Scandinavia, and the Soviet Union - he found the same alcohol-crime relationship.

The most recent FBI crime report available shows the following increases in Alaska between 1980 and 1981: aggravated assault - 1,270 cases in 1980 and 1,584 in 1981; murder - 39 and 60; forcible rape - 250 and 421; robbery - 300 and 472.

Unlike most states, where residents are not very keen on having prisons in their communities, Endell notes that at least three Alaskan boroughs are bidding for the new maximum-security facilities - even offering free land and utilities.

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