‘It is a big deal’: Alaska’s prisons to resume attorney visits, with restrictions

A person in a yellow suit marked LCCC prisoner as seen from behind
Prisoners at Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau attend a formline design class in 2015. (Scott Burton/KTOO)

The Department of Corrections will allow prisoners to meet with their attorneys again beginning Wednesday after a year-long ban on visits because of COVID-19. 

Since last March, prisoners have been relying on phone calls from their lawyers to discuss case updates and prepare for hearings. 

But as of Wednesday, March 17, attorneys can meet with their clients in person again — as long as they are fully vaccinated, wear masks and talk through a plexiglass barrier. Still, Anchorage defense attorney Rich Curtner called it a “big deal.”

“I think at least they recognize that the attorney-client constitutional rights for clients are important. And, you know, they have to be balanced with COVID risk,” he said. 

And that risk is very real: Outbreaks of the virus have infected over 2,000 people living in Alaska’s prison system, according to Department of Corrections numbers. 

Curtner has been part of a group of attorneys pushing for more in-person access, which he said is essential to properly prepare their clients for hearings. 

He’s worried the Department of Corrections isn’t vaccinating its inmate population quickly enough: The most recent state numbers show just 10% are fully vaccinated. 

But over 1600 people have received at least one dose, about a third of the state’s population behind bars. DOC’s chief medical officer, Dr. Robert Lawrence, said the state is working as fast as it can to get more vaccine out. He said opening up more access to prisons also depends on how much COVID-19 is spreading in surrounding communities. 

“It’s not a light switch kind of thing. It’s more like a dimmer switch, where we slowly say, ‘Okay, we have now reached both a vaccine level and a community transmission level, where we can slowly start opening.'”

Visits from family members and others, such as volunteers who teach skills and classes, are still banned. The Department of Corrections said in a statement it hopes to expand opportunities in the “near future,” but has not laid out a timeline. 

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Lex Treinen covers culture, homelessness, politics and corrections for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at ltreinen@alaskapublic.org.