Unconstitutional? Inmates seek to ban practice of 'human chains' in Alaska court rooms

Published: Oct. 27, 2017 at 2:21 PM AKDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

Calling the practice unconstitutional and inhumane, two Alaska inmates are trying to end the state practice of shackling defendants together to form a “human chain” at routine court appearances.

The effort follows

that quietly prompted Alaska federal courts to rewrite policies for restraining inmates earlier this month.

“A presumptively innocent defendant has the right to be treated with respect and dignity in a public courtroom, not like a bear on a chain,” the

in a ruling that is now being applied in several western states.

In Alaska, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Timothy Burgess announced a new policy for shackling defendants at federal court houses across the state. As of Oct. 1, judges must decide whether each inmate should appear in restraints on a case-by-case basis.

State courts, however, did not change their policy.

This week, Anchorage defense attorney Ember Tilton filed a lawsuit in federal court against the state Department of Public Safety and the court system in hopes of forcing state courts to overhaul courtroom shackling procedures. The lawsuit calls for the Alaska to:

- End the practice of shackling multiple defendants to one another at routine state court hearings, which the inmates say is “inhumane and unconstitutional.” (Federal officials say this practice was not used in federal courts here.)

- Presume that individual defendants should not be handcuffed when they appear in state pretrial hearings unless a judge decides, on a case-by-case basis, that the defendant poses a public safety risk.

The Department of Public Safety and court administrators declined to comment for this story, citing the ongoing civil case. Law enforcement in other states have raised concerns about efforts to loosen shackling requirements.

In Arizona, Sen. Jeff Flake and local sheriffs filed a brief asking the Supreme Court to overturn the Ninth Circuit ruling calling it dangerous and burdensome,


The Alaska lawsuit was filed on behalf of Jason McAnulty and Toby Spece, two current Alaska inmates whose requests to be unshackled during summer court appearances were denied by state judges, according to the suit.

Tilton said Alaska has allowed an unfair system in which defendants who can afford bail are allowed to appear in pretrial appearances in plain clothes, sitting beside their attorneys, while those who can’t afford bail must sit in shackles.

“It’s a test of our civility, how we treat not just prisoners and people accused of crimes, the mentally ill and handicapped,” he said. “It’s for our own dignity and our own character as a society that we treat these people well.”