Lawyers must be allowed to visit clients in prisons and prisons in Alaska, regardless of whether the inmates are vaccinated or not, a judge in the Anchorage Superior Court ruled.
The verdict means more Alaskans who have been incarcerated for more than a year without personal legal advice or an opportunity to try can finally see their attorneys.
Monday’s order stems from a lawsuit filed in late January by a group of Alaskan lawyers on behalf of their clients. The lawyers argued that the continued ban on attending lawyers and clients deprived the defendants of their constitutional right to legal assistance.
The Corrections Department has to open attorney visits and cannot deny attorneys access to facilities without good cause, wrote Judge Una Gandbhir.
“The lack of face-to-face visits for unvaccinated clients has been shown to have a negative impact on the quality of criminal defense lawyers,” Gandbhir wrote.
With criminal cases expected to resume soon, any delay in attorney and client encounters could prove “fatal to the freedom interests of countless Alaskans currently in custody,” she wrote.
The DOC will comply, wrote spokeswoman Sarah Gallagher. Face masks will be required, appointments must be made in advance, and lawyers will have health and temperature screenings at the door, Gallagher said.
In March 2020, the Alaska Department of Corrections halted all personal visits to prisons and prisons across the state in hopes of keeping the coronavirus out of vulnerable prisons and prisons.
Despite the complete lockdown, the virus spread to many facilities in Alaska: At the Goose Creek Correctional Center, almost every inmate eventually contracted COVID-19.
In mid-March 2021, when vaccines were widespread across the state, the DOC reopened attorney visits – but only to inmates who had completed the vaccination.
Vaccines are offered to those detained in Alaska, but they are not required to receive the vaccination.
Many did not do it: According to the DOC, 1,598 of 4,516 detainees had completed their vaccination series by Tuesday. That’s about 35% of the prison population. About 2,518 individual inmates had received at least one shot.
In the filing, attorneys argued that making a video or phone call was not the same as sitting and talking to a client, and that legal representation suffered as a result.
“What we heard is that their clients’ mental health was deteriorating,” said Jeff Robinson, an Anchorage attorney who argued the case on behalf of the attorneys.
“Many of the clients I have represented have been paranoid about communications over the prison phone system for fear of being monitored,” wrote Benjamin Muse, an assistant federal defender, in an affidavit filed with the lawsuit.
With the offense proceedings scheduled to resume in late April, many proceedings must be prepared, Muse wrote. This required an incoming call that is not being conducted over the phone.
“I do not believe that the judicial system can fairly resume trials for all clients in custody until the DOC allows a visit to be made in custody,” he wrote.
Lawyers also wrote that many of the defendants suffered from mental illness or cognitive disorders, which made communication by phone or video difficult. Others don’t trust the idea that phone or video calls are actually private.
“I have no confidence in the confidentiality of long-distance communications between attorneys and clients in DOC custody,” wrote Burke Wonnell, an assistant federal attorney in Anchorage.
The months without a lawyer have resulted in some listening to the advice of other inmates rather than the lawyers, whom they can only speak to over the phone.
“I have seen an increase in the number of clients who have taken the advice of” prison attorneys “instead of me,” Wonnell wrote.
Visits from friends and family members are still not permitted, according to the DOC.