Alaska Black Caucus calls for DOC to resume in-person visitation

Published: Mar. 4, 2021 at 4:53 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Alaska Black Caucus is calling on Alaska’s Department of Corrections to resume in-person visitation nearly a year after it was suspended.

Attorneys Rex Butler and Rich Curtner who serve as co-chairs of the ABC Justice Committee said during a news conference held over Zoom Thursday that currently available methods of interacting with their clients via telephone and videoconference are not sufficient.

“Clients have to trust us with their lives, quite frankly,” Butler said. “They’ve got to trust us with their futures. Their families have to trust us. It’s very difficult to earn that trust and maintain that trust and support that trust when basically you’re over a telephone.”

Butler said judges are expecting defendants and their attorneys to be ready to move forward when trials resume but showing their clients discovery materials and talking them through the case is something that needs to happen in person in order for them to be prepared to stand trial.

“If the other jails around the country, if other states have found a way to accommodate this very important and constitutional right of a, of an inmate, of a defendant, then Alaska has to do the same,” Butler said.

When it comes to visitation practices in prisons across the country, Alaska is in the minority, according to a report by The Marshall Project. The report shows Alaska is one of 13 states in which the corrections system has suspended all visitation.

In 30 states, normal visitation is suspended but legal visits are still allowed. Eight states have resumed visitation with safety precautions.

“It’s been frustrating that the Department of Corrections hasn’t really been willing to meet with the Alaska Black Caucus to work on some type of accommodations that would be in the benefit of the inmates, from the staff and from the community,” Curtner said. “And so, we’re hoping that maybe they’ll change their opinion on that and start at least communicating with the community about how we can accommodate all the things that inmates have a right to when they’re in custody.”

ABC President and CEO Celeste Hodge-Growden said the group started trying to get a meeting with the DOC back in November. Eventually, a meeting was scheduled but then canceled twice, she said.

“We have not been able to successfully get a meeting with the commissioner,” Hodge-Growden said. “And we feel four months is long enough, I mean we’re all busy.”

The DOC did not agree to an interview Thursday, but Director of Institutions Jeremy Hough previously participated in an interview via Zoom on Jan. 14 in which he discussed visitation.

He said in an effort to mitigate the loss of family visits, people in custody are being provided four free 15-minute phone calls per week.

“For attorney visitation, DOC has increased the number of phones available for private attorney calls and has also implemented a process in which the offenders can communicate with their attorneys via video, in a secured setting, so that they can be shepherded through discovery,” Hough said.

He did not provide any specific benchmarks the department would be eyeing for reopening facilities to visitation in the future during the January interview, but said the decision would involve Alaska’s public health officials.

“I guess the simplest thing for me to say is visitation is going to resume when it’s medically safe to do so,” Hough said.

Thursday afternoon, DOC spokesperson Sarah Gallagher wrote in an email that the department anticipates sharing an update on the issue of visitation soon.

“DOC has begun the initial planning process for safely, gradually reopening our facilities, to include attorney-client visitation,” she wrote.

As for why the DOC has not met with ABC, Gallagher cited pending litigation.

“Although Commissioner Dahlstrom has not met with representatives of the Alaska Black Caucus due to pending litigation, we have communicated with them via email and provided information responsive to any questions they have asked,” Gallagher wrote.

A group of attorneys, including Curtner, sought injunctive relief from the courts in January. The civil case remains unresolved.

Individuals living in congregate settings, including corrections settings, are now eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines from the state.

According to the DOC’s website, more than 1,400 people in custody have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. More than 2,000 have tested positive for COVID-19, and there have been five in-custody COVID-19 deaths.

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