When someone in prison in Alaska reaches different milestones approaching their anticipated release date, they check off eligibility requirements for lower security options and programs intended to smooth their reintegration with society.
Parole boards often grant earlier release dates. But the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska says the Department of Corrections won’t recognize those new dates for eligibility purposes for helpful programs.
The ACLU on Thursday announced it’s suing the Department of Corrections to try to force change on this down-in-the-weeds legal issue that has big impacts. The civil rights organization says the status quo is bad for society, and violates a lot of incarcerated people’s constitutional rights.
“(The programs) are crucial to helping people be able to readjust to our communities and to be successful once they are released,” said ACLU Legal Director Ruth Botstein at a news conference about the lawsuit on Thursday.
In its lawsuit, the ACLU is representing four men caught in the eligibility crosshairs: Jace Frankson, Geoffrey Mathis, Jonathan Walker and Sababu Hodari. They’ve each served more than 20 years of their decades-long sentences, and were each granted parole dates moving their release dates up. But the corrections department has told them that, based on their original release dates, they are ineligible for the transition programs.
Of the named plaintiffs, Frankson has the earliest release date set for Aug. 9, 2024.
ACLU prison investigator Jacqueline Shepherd recounted a conversation she had with one of the men.
“I’ve been behind bars my entire adult life. I have no idea how to open a bank account, I don’t know how to use a computer, and I’ve never really had an apartment or adult responsibility,” Shepherd recounted. Because of the eligibility issue, he told her, “I can’t qualify for any community-based programs that would help me transition slowly into society. I feel like they’re purposefully setting me up to fail.”
In a press release, Botstein called the department’s interpretation of the eligibility rules irrational and arbitrary.
“This does not serve our government, which boasts the need for successful reentry, and it does not serve the communities that will absorb these individuals and try to help them succeed in our neighborhoods,” she said.
The ACLU is asking the court to assert that the Department of Corrections is violating due process and equal protection rights, and to order the department to give their plaintiffs and others like them access to transition programs.
A spokesperson for the department said in an email late Thursday morning that she was not yet aware of the lawsuit. She forwarded a request for comment to the state Department of Law. The state generally does not comment on current litigation.
The ACLU says the state has 40 days to respond in court.