ACLU points to continued issues with Alaska prisoners’ access to attorneys

Two people walk through a prison.
Goose Creek Correctional Center on Nov. 1, 2011. (Ellen Lockyer/Alaska Public Media)

The Alaska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is stepping up its pressure on the Alaska Department of Corrections over what it says are improper restrictions on inmates’ access to private conversations with their attorneys. It’s the second time in recent months the group has raised the issue.

Conversations between inmates and attorneys involve some of the most sensitive details of someone’s life, so when you think you’re speaking one-on-one with a jailed client, it’s troubling to hear another voice on the line, ACLU of Alaska Prison Project director Megan Edge said in an interview. 

“Through the phone, not on speakerphone — these are jail calls — our attorney asks, you know, ‘can you hear us?’ And the officer responded and said, ‘Yes, ma’am, I can hear you,’” Edge said.

That incident during a conversation with an inmate at Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward was one of four cited in a letter from the ACLU of Alaska’s legal director to Department of Corrections Commissioner Jen Winkelman last month. The group highlighted similar issues at the all-female Hiland Mountain Correctional Center in Eagle River in April, and Edge says it’s part of a pattern.

“It’s correctional officers or other DOC staff staying in the room or standing right next to somebody trying to have a privileged phone call,” Edge said.

In another incident described in the June 20 letter, a Hiland Mountain inmate told an ACLU attorney she was forced to take legal calls in common areas near other prisoners and correctional officers. Another inmate missed mealtime waiting for an attorney’s call while the facility’s phones were down, according to the ACLU. And the group says prison staff at Wildwood Correctional Center “harassed” an attorney over her appearance despite her wearing “standard business attire,” the letter recounts.

“As stated in our earlier letter, the ACLU of Alaska is increasingly concerned that these repeated sorts of incidents reflect a pervasive staff misunderstanding about the contours of the constitutional right to communicate confidentially with attorneys,” ACLU of Alaska Legal Director Ruth Botstein wrote.

And it’s not just ACLU attorneys speaking out.

“Basically, it would be cheaper for me to fly round-trip to Tokyo than to go visit my client at Goose Creek Correctional [Center],” Anchorage defense attorney Adam Franklin said by phone.

He said Department of Corrections staff is typically helpful and professional when setting up client visits. But when an Anchorage defendant is shipped off to Point Mackenzie to await trial, the three-hour round trip makes representation expensive and difficult, he said. At Franklin’s rate of $350 an hour, the drive by itself would cost more than $1,000.

“It’s extortionate to charge that kind of money, in my opinion, to charge that kind of money for a client visit, and that charge is solely created by the issue of having the client at Goose Creek versus Anchorage Correctional, Cook Inlet Pretrial which is, again, five minutes down the street,” Franklin said.

The Department of Corrections says the movement of prisoners is a “function of population management.”

Franklin said he’s also had trouble delivering legal documents to his clients.

“I said, ‘Hey, I want to give this, you know, these 11 pages to my client’ — and it’s just pieces of paper, you know, they’re welcome to do whatever they want with it. It’s a public record anyway. They could read it, make a photocopy, I really don’t care. And the answer is just a flat no,” Franklin said.

Department of Corrections spokesperson Betsy Holley said attorneys are in fact allowed to deliver legal paperwork, including at Goose Creek, though it’s subject to a cursory search for contraband. 

“Additionally, GCCC in particular works very closely with the Public Defender’s Office, who works closely with a courier to deliver legal paperwork safely and securely to inmates,” Holley said in an email.

And the Department of Corrections says contraband is a constant concern. More than 50 people, including some Alaska inmates, have been charged with participating in an international drug trafficking ring that allegedly smuggled drugs into small communities all over Alaska. 

Holley said it’s “not uncommon” for people other than prisoners’ attorneys to try and introduce contraband to jails through what purports to be legal mail. 

And while it’s rare, it’s not unprecedented for lawyers themselves to be involved: one Alaska defense attorney was charged in 2017 with bringing drugs into the Anchorage Correctional Complex during legal visits. 

Even so, the ACLU’s Megan Edge stressed the importance of ensuring prisoners have access to secure, private conversations with their attorneys, a right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Many inmates are awaiting trial and presumed innocent, Edge said, and others struggle with substance abuse.

“People are like, ‘Why do I care?’ And it’s like, because it could be you or someone that you know and don’t wait until someone you know and love, or yourself, you end up in that situation, to start caring about those things,” Edge said. “Let’s proactively fix this.”

The Department of Corrections it has agreed to meet with the ACLU to discuss the issues, Holley said. Edge said she’s hoping to sit down with state officials next month.

“I am excited for the opportunity to be able to actually problem-solve something outside of litigation,” Edge said. “I’m hoping that we can come to some sort of solution when we have that conversation, if we do end up having that conversation.”

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Eric Stone covers state government, tracking the Alaska Legislature, state policy and its impact on all Alaskans. Reach him at estone@alaskapublic.org.

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