‘A virtual life sentence’ — Prison reform advocates still hopeful about second-look legislation

Angela and Brian Hall
Angela and Brian Hall. (Courtesy Angela Hall)

Brian Hall is part of a group of several men that grew up in Alaska’s correctional system together and refer to each other as family.

Brian, now 46, is serving a portion of his 159-year sentence at Wildwood Correctional Complex, in Kenai. He’s been incarcerated since he was 17, on charges of killing two people.

And his earliest chance at parole is still decades away. His wife, Angela Hall, is hoping the Alaska Legislature will pass legislation that would make sure Alaskans like him have an earlier chance at parole.

“You hear about people getting sentenced all the time,” she said. “But you don’t really hear about what has happened to those people after 20-plus years.”

Statewide, there are 30 people incarcerated today who were convicted of their crimes as juveniles, according to a spokesperson with the Alaska Department of Corrections.

Senate Bill 114, introduced last year, would give those committed as kids a chance at discretionary parole review after the first 15 years of their sentence.

The bill wouldn’t guarantee parole for those people. But it would give them a chance in front of the Alaska Parole Board. And if rejected, they could come back to the board after two years.

“This way, they could develop a relationship with the parole board,” Angela said. “The parole board would give recommendations of what they would like to see. And they could do these things in the meantime, and then hopefully be parole-ready the next time they come before the board.”

Alaska is one of 25 states that doesn’t allow life sentences without parole for juveniles.

But Angela said long periods of jail time, like the one her husband is serving, are virtual life sentences. She said the first chance Brian has to see the parole board will be when he’s in his 70s.

“The life expectancy for individuals who are incarcerated is much lower than that,” Angela said.

That’s just when he would be eligible — in 2020, the Alaska Parole Board accepted just 16% of the applications it received for parole.

Megan Edge, communications director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, said the prison population in Alaska — and at Wildwood, specifically — is an aging one, in part because fewer people are being granted discretionary parole today.

She’s concerned about the higher-than-usual number of deaths in Corrections custody this year. Edge said some of those 15 people were serving lengthy sentences.

“So it’s incredibly sad,” Edge said. “Especially in a state that doesn’t have the death penalty — we’re still committing people to death by incarceration.”

Angela Hall runs Supporting Our Loved Ones, a support group for families of incarcerated Alaskans. She said her husband has turned his life around since he was first sentenced three decades ago.

The two got married and celebrated their 10th anniversary this year. Brian got his GED, and became a dog obedience instructor. He’s Cherokee, and keeps his spiritual and cultural practice alive as much as possible from Wildwood. In 2019, he won a lawsuit affirming the right to wear cultural regalia in prison.

Wildwood Correctional Center
Wildwood Correctional Complex (From Alaska Department of Corrections)

Angela said she doesn’t know what’s next for the legislation.

Democrat Minority Leader Sen. Tom Begich was the bill’s sponsor last session. But despite support from a state criminal justice commission, the legislation didn’t get a hearing. And Begich isn’t running for another term.

“We’re not sure if there’s going to be support for it at this point,” Angela said. “So it just really depends on what happens with the elections.”

Edge, with the ACLU, said the bill fits squarely into the broader prison reform work she’s spearheading as part of the organization’s new Alaska Prison Project.

That initiative formed last month with the goal of reducing the number of incarcerated Alaskans and improving conditions for those already in the system.

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