By Meg Rowe
The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. In the context of COVID-19, this means that no one deserves to die of infectious disease for committing some crime, if it’s preventable. Particularly, Alaska’s interests in keeping non-violent and low-level offenders in custody is far eclipsed by those prisoners’ interest in not dying in a prison outbreak of COVID-19.
While other states and the federal government are significantly reducing prison populations in response to COVID-19, Alaska’s Department of Corrections (DOC) response to COVID-19 has been to merely shut down all visitations and group activities (i.e. things that make prison livable) and to continue policies which categorically restrict access to electronic monitoring (EM) and put private EM companies out of business.
Of course, Alaska prisoners are especially at risk because of how far our prisons are from hospitals (i.e. Anvil Mountain near a White Alice site in Nome or Goose Creek in Point MacKenzie) and because of an ‘alarming’ level of overcrowding, according to a November 2019 report by the ACLU of Alaska.
Although Alaska law allows offenders to serve their time on EM (either by the DOC or a private company), many private EM companies have gone out of business in recent years because the DOC is only allowing sentenced offenders to do their EM for the purpose of maintaining funding levels. One private EM company interviewed said that she has tens of thousands of dollars of unused EM equipment as do the other few EM companies that remain. Her equipment offers more geographic scope than DOC’s (like the North Slope for work passes and for outlying parts of the Mat-Su) and, like the DOC’s, provides real-time GPS monitoring, house arrest, and alcohol monitoring.
The DOC has enacted policies that are stricter than the legislature’s EM guidelines and which categorically restrict offenders from applying for EM versus evaluating them on a case-by-case basis. However, private EM companies are not bound by DOC’s extra restrictions and do in fact review offenders before agreeing to monitor them. And, private EM companies are funded by the offenders at around $20 a day, unlike DOC’s EM which is funded by the government.
A number of prisoners interviewed said they were told that they are ineligible for EM despite good behavior in prison, continuous efforts toward rehabilitation, and community support out-of-custody. One was a 27-year-old woman with a severe genetic heart condition who is in custody on a DUI until December, but who is ineligible for EM because of a technicality. The DOC lacks the ability to care for her medical needs even without COVID-19 and she is understandably terrified as are most prisoners and their families of an outbreak in the institutions.
Alaska prisons are a ticking time bomb for a COVID-19 outbreak and no one deserves to die in custody because the state lacked the forethought to develop alternatives to prison before this happened.
Like correctional institutions around the country, Alaska legislators and the DOC need to act quickly to identify inmates who can be released early while ensuring public safety with electronic monitoring.
Meg Rowe is an attorney practicing in Anchorage.