For the first time in more than a year, the public will be allowed into Alaska prisons and jails to visit incarcerated people starting this week, the Department of Corrections said Monday.
Correctional facilities throughout the state stopped visitations last March as a pandemic precaution.
The corrections department loosened those restrictions last month for attorneys -- at first allowing only incarcerated people who had been fully vaccinated to meet in person with their defense attorneys. A judge ruled this month that vaccination status could not bar the visitations.
The corrections department will begin allowing public visitation with fully vaccinated prisoners on Wednesday, the department said in a statement. Incarcerated people must have received their final dose of a COVID-19 vaccine at least two weeks prior to any visits, the department said.
Visitation at the Anchorage Correctional Complex and Ketchikan Correctional Center remains suspended due to recent cases of COVID-19, the department said.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Monday appeared to rule out government-mandated vaccinations.
Sarah Gallagher, a spokeswoman for the corrections department, said by email Monday that the department “has never mandated vaccinations -- the choice remains with the inmate.”
Throughout the year, COVID-19 outbreaks were reported at many of Alaska’s correctional facilities. In the state’s largest prison, Goose Creek Correctional Center in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, about 90% of incarcerated people contracted the virus at some point, underscoring the difficulties of containing a highly contagious illness in a congregate living facility.
Gallagher said the department’s decision to restrict visitation privileges to only incarcerated people who have been fully vaccinated was born out of concern about another COVID-19 outbreak.
“At this time, according to CDC guidelines, inmates who are fully vaccinated are at very low risk for introducing the virus into the facility,” she wrote. “Every inmate who participates in visitation goes back into a housing unit with 30-100 other offenders, many with elevated risk factors. Our main concern is not just that one inmate, it is also the hundreds of others with whom they have regular close contact.”
As of Wednesday, about 2,400 prisoners had tested positive for COVID-19 during the last year, according to data from the corrections department. Five Alaskans died after contracting COVID-19 while incarcerated.
The last year has been scary for incarcerated people and their families, said Angela Hall, whose husband is serving a sentence at Wildwood Correctional Center in Kenai. Hall founded Supporting Our Loved Ones Group, an advocacy and support group for families of incarcerated people.
For more than a year, families have relied exclusively on phone calls to communicate with people inside the state’s correctional centers.
Hall said her husband does not want to get the vaccine yet. Vaccine hesitancy among incarcerated people comes partly because of a distrust in the corrections department, she said.
For Hall, the announcement Monday was disappointing, she said. Hall has not seen her husband since October 2019 and said the vaccine requirement means she still won’t be able to see him now.
Requiring a vaccine for visitations feels like a mandate, Hall said.
“That’s his right to do so, to not want to take it,” she said of her husband. “But it kind of feels like now you’re almost forced to take it because you want to be able to see your loved ones.”
The vaccine requirement doesn’t make sense for the no-contact visits that will be allowed beginning Wednesday, she said.
All visitors will be screened for COVID-19 upon entry into a correctional facility and will be required to wear face masks, the department said. Appointments are required and physical contact is not allowed.
Hall said no-contact visits take place with a barrier between both parties and they are able to talk using a phone on each side.
As of last week, 1,839 people imprisoned at corrections facilities throughout the state had been fully vaccinated, corrections department data showed.
Alaska joins 19 other states in resuming visitations, according to data collected this month by The Marshall Project, a nonprofit organization focused on criminal justice reporting. The decision to resume visitation comes as part of a larger reopening plan, Gallagher said.
“As vaccination numbers continue to increase and transmission rates decrease, DOC looks forward to resuming more pre-COVID operations,” she wrote.