Alaska News

Head prison doctor named as Alaska’s new chief medical officer

The longtime leader of Alaska’s correctional medical system has been named the state’s new chief medical officer.

Dr. Robert Lawrence is replacing Dr. Anne Zink, who became a household name while she steered the state through the COVID-19 pandemic. Lawrence started the job Monday, the Alaska Department of Health said in a prepared statement.

Zink, an emergency room physician, in February had announced she was leaving the job to pursue other career opportunities.

In an interview Monday, Lawrence called being named as the state’s top medical offer an “unspeakable privilege.” The Alaska chief medical officer provides clinical advice to the governor and to state health authorities.

A family medicine physician who also has training in bioethics and education, Lawrence got his start in Alaska working in Nome. He’s been the chief medical officer for the Alaska Department of Corrections since 2013.

In the role, he oversaw the constitutionally mandated medical and dental care rendered to thousands of inmates cycling through Alaska’s correctional institutions, ranging from routine care to dialysis and immunization of thousands of people during the pandemic. The department’s medical budget more than doubled in that time, rising from $31.5 million per year to $64.8 million — driven in part by an aging inmate population and more people arriving to incarceration with complicated and chronic medical conditions.

[‘Like a nursing home’: The realities of Alaska’s aging inmate population]


During that time, the department dealt with managing the coronavirus pandemic as well as close scrutiny of inmate deaths, which reached a new record in 2023. In February, the state ombudsman found that the department’s dental program at Goose Creek Correctional Center was not meeting its legal obligation of care to inmates.

Lawrence contends that the department has made changes over the years to ensure safety, including revamping its protocols around people detoxing from drugs and alcohol after deaths.

“I would invite people in to see what’s really going on in a department where you have people who absolutely care and feel the weight of every harmful outcome,” he said.

Alaska’s institutions have a “concentrating effect,” Lawrence said — any social issues happening in the wider world will show up more inside jail and prison populations.

“If there’s a problem with infectious disease, we’ll find that concentrated in prison systems. That’s certainly true of the substance use disorder problems, mental health issues, and if there’s a problem with rising suicide rates — we would see that concentrated in our prison facilities,” he said.

[The unseen driver of Alaska’s record jail deaths: Suicide]

On Monday, Lawrence said he and Zink were having a “warm handoff of the incredible work she’s been doing.” Her experience, confronted with a global pandemic months into her tenure as Alaska’s top doctor, shows anything can happen, he said.

“There is no way of knowing ahead of time what challenge is on the horizon,” he said. “We have to be prepared.”

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.