Crime & Courts

Anchorage activist and her incarcerated husband file class-action lawsuit alleging Alaska prison phone-call charges are unconstitutional

An Anchorage activist and her incarcerated husband have filed a class-action lawsuit against the state challenging what they say are unaffordable, unconstitutional paid prison phone calls.

The lawsuit, filed in Anchorage Superior Court on June 1, asserts that Alaska prisoners have a right to phone access through the state’s constitution, which has been interpreted by courts to afford prisoners rehabilitation services.

“However, if you make it very expensive for prisoners to call their loved ones, this right is undermined,” the lawsuit, filed by attorneys with the Northern Justice Project in Anchorage says.

Plaintiffs Terria and Karl Vandenhuerk’s lawsuit is filed on behalf of both people incarcerated in Alaska jails and prisons and their loved ones on the outside -- the people who pay for calls through Securus, the Texas-based, for-profit corporation that controls all phone communication between prisoners and the outside world.

“If they can’t get a hold of their family or their family can’t pay for it -- how do they prepare to be able to re-enter society?” said Terria Vandenhuerk, an Anchorage restorative justice activist whose husband is incarcerated at Wildwood Correctional Center in Kenai.

The Alaska Department of Corrections referred questions to the Alaska Department of Law. The Department of Law has not yet responded to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also alleges the state is also violating a decades-old final settlement in Cleary vs. State of Alaska, a landmark prisoners’ rights case.

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The Cleary settlement promised that the state would never charge more than 50 cents for local calls, said Nick Feronti, an attorney with the Northern Justice Project. These days, local calls are $1 and long-distance calls can be up to $5 for 15 minutes, with taxes and fees attached.

Unlike in other states, in-person visits to prisons are less of an option for many people in Alaska, Feronti said. Phone calls are even more important.

“Visitation is really hard in Alaska,” said Feronti. “Even in the best of circumstances. Think of anyone off the road system, they have to take a plane flight and a long journey to see a loved one. It’s different than almost every state.”

Expensive phone calls are a problem because inmates without the ability to connect to people outside prison are more likely to fall back into crime when they are released, said Vandenhuerk.

Terria and Karl Vandenhuerk

Vandenhuerk, whose husband Karl is serving time for burglary and other convictions at Wildwood Correctional Center in Kenai, has spent thousands of dollars on their conversations. Their connection, and those conversations, helped him move away from prison gang life and into a substance-abuse rehab program. He hopes to become a barber when he gets out.

Vandenhuerk’s son Christopher Seaman was murdered in 2015. Her desire for affordable phone calls for incarcerated people extends to her son’s killer, she said.

“I want nothing more than the man who killed my son to get the services and rehabilitation he needs,’ she said. “I want him to be able to talk to his mom, sister and children. I want him to be released as a whole transformed individual.”

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a reporter who covers news and features about life in Alaska, and has been focusing on corrections and psychiatric care issues in the state. Contact her at mtheriault@adn.com.

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