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Crime & Courts

Alaska Black Caucus pushes for pandemic-induced prison visitation restrictions to be loosened

A visitation suspension that was once put in place to protect people within Alaska’s correctional facilities is now doing the opposite, officials from the Alaska Black Caucus said Thursday.

The caucus has been pushing for months to have visitation restrictions loosened in the state’s correctional facilities because of the impact it has on attorney-client communications.

The Alaska Department of Corrections halted all in-person visitation last March when COVID-19 was first detected in the state. At the time, officials said they implemented safety precautions in hopes of minimizing the risk of virus spread in Alaska’s crowded jails. But by fall and winter, COVID-19 was spreading rampantly in the state’s correctional facilities.

By the end of the year, nearly every inmate in the state’s largest prison, Goose Creek Correctional Center in the Mat-Su, had contracted the virus. In total, more than 2,300 incarcerated people had contracted the virus statewide by Tuesday, data from the corrections department showed.

Celeste Hodge Growden, president of the Alaska Black Caucus, said during a news conference Thursday that the organization has reached out multiple times to discuss the visitation policy with the commissioner of the corrections department, but meetings have been repeatedly canceled.

Alaska is one of 13 states that still have complete visitation bans, according to data compiled by The Marshall Project, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization focused on criminal justice reporting.

Richard Curtner, who is the former federal public defender for Alaska and co-chair of the Alaska Black Caucus’ Justice Committee, said it doesn’t make sense that visitation is still on pause in prisons when restrictions elsewhere have been significantly loosened and knowledge about mitigation efforts has improved enormously since the pandemic began.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections could not be reached by phone Thursday and did not respond to an email asking if or when the department plans to modify visitation policies.

By Monday, data from the corrections department showed 1,472 inmates had received at least a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine. Alaska has led the nation in vaccinations per capita and COVID-19 cases have significantly fallen in recent months. Anchorage Acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson announced Thursday that the municipality would drop capacity restrictions on businesses and loosen gathering size limits next week in response to lower case numbers and rising vaccinations.

Since visitations ended at correctional facilities, inmates have been allowed to communicate with their attorneys by phone and video chat, although Curtner said there have been ongoing problems with the video communication. The technology is outdated, Curtner said, and it’s challenging to ensure privacy between just the attorney and client.

Communication through the phone or by video is “woefully inadequate,” he said.

“There’s no way you can take the place of ... the in-person relationship between an attorney and a client,” Curtner said. “The most important part, I think of representation of a client who’s in custody is earning their trust, so they can trust you for advice. And it’s almost impossible to do that on a Zoom.”

Jury trials are scheduled to resume in coming months, but Rex Butler, defense attorney and co-chair of the caucus’s justice committee, said it’s nearly impossible to properly prepare for trial without being able to meet in-person with his clients.

“Richard and I, we appear in front of judges around the state,” he said. “These judges have jam-packed calendars and what they’re telling us is, when the time opens up for trials, they are ready to get started. They don’t want to hear any excuses that we’re not prepared.

“Quite frankly, as we sit here talking to you today, we are not prepared for trial in any of these felony type cases because we haven’t had the time to sit down with the clients, especially those who are in custody, and be prepared.”

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