Crime & Courts

Vaccine hesitancy and coronavirus spread in Alaska towns with prisons hinder lifting of visitation restrictions

Vaccine hesitancy and rates of COVID-19 spread in towns housing Alaska prisons are hindering efforts to lift restrictions imposed during the pandemic at state Department of Corrections facilities.

Dr. Robert Lawrence, the department’s chief medical officer, said with community spread of the virus and varying vaccination rates, it’s likely prisons in different parts of the state will reopen to visitors at different times.

“I would say the real marker, the metric to be following are those community transmission rates,” he said.

The department has undertaken efforts aimed at addressing the hesitancy some feel about being vaccinated.

Those include videos, small group discussions or having nurses visit cells to offer vaccines or offer to answer questions, Alaska Public Media reported. In one video, Lawrence discusses vaccine rumors and gets a shot.

Trevor Stefano, an inmate at Point Mackenzie Correctional Farm, said he recently tested positive for COVID-19, along with others at the facility. The timing of the outbreak, occurring around the time the first round of vaccines were being administered, fueled rumors about the vaccine.

“Nobody trusts DOC,” Stefano said of the department.


More than 2,000 people in the department’s custody have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

Rich Curtner, an Anchorage defense attorney, said the video could have been more effective if it had featured an athlete or voices that those in custody would be more likely to trust.

He has been working with the Alaska Black Caucus to try to speed the reopening of prisons to visits from attorneys and family members. The caucus is involved in racial justice issues.

The department recently reopened attorney-client visitation within its facilities but a condition for those in-person visits is that the people incarcerated must be fully vaccinated.

It’s not clear if that has affected vaccination rates because the change just took effect last week.

But civil rights advocates at the American Civil Liberties Union have raised concerns that the policy infringes on people’s rights to choose what health care procedures they get.