Number of unsentenced Alaskans behind bars climbs under COVID-19 court, prison constraints

Anchorage Correctional Complex (Alaska Dept. of Corrections)

Despite efforts to reduce Alaska’s inmate population during the pandemic, some facilities are crowded.

Jury trials remain suspended, and many people have no idea when they will get their day in court. Plus, defense attorneys say their inability to meet with clients makes it difficult to resolve cases through plea deals.

That means more Alaskans who haven’t been convicted of a crime are spending extra time in jail at higher risk for exposure to COVID-19.

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The number of inmates in Department of Corrections custody actually dropped early on in the pandemic, according to a report from the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission. Seeing the need to reduce crowding, Alaska’s presiding judges temporarily removed requirements to jail some offenders, among other measures.

But in May, new arrests again started to outpace the number of cases being resolved. There are now more people in jail in Alaska accused of a crime — presumed innocent until proven guilty — than those who’ve been convicted and sentenced.

“It’s been very challenging, and very frustrating, in a lot of ways,” said Ben Muse, deputy public defender with the Alaska Public Defender Agency.

Some clients who can’t afford their bail are stuck in jail with no trial date, or with court dates that keep getting pushed off, and no end in sight, Muse said.

“You can hear the frustration and hopelessness in their voices, like it’s been very difficult,” he said.

A vast majority of cases end in conviction through plea agreement, not trial. Many lawyers say a big part of what’s jamming up the system this year is that it’s so difficult to meet with clients, go over evidence, and hash out whether they should take a plea deal.

All of that was done face-to-face pre-COVID, Muse said. But the Department of Corrections stopped all visitation in the spring. And it took about six months for the department to get a workable video-conferencing service, Muse said.

Muse said he does not envy the DOC’s position in trying to grapple with these unforeseen issues. But the months it took to figure it out likely contributed to that bloated pre-trial population of inmates, he said.

“You know, when you’re just not in the room with them to have a really heart-to-heart conversation about the realities of their case, it’s made it very difficult. And I think there has been some things implemented by the DOC to try to address the difficulties of attorney-client communication, but I don’t know that they’ve been sufficient,” Muse said.

As of Monday, 161 inmates at the Anchorage Jail had active cases of COVID-19, according to the Department of Corrections. A 78-year-old, unsentenced inmate died earlier this month. He had been in custody since 2017.

The department was as surprised by the coronavirus pandemic as anybody, DOC Director of Institutions Jeremy Hough said.

“What happened was, we hit the pandemic, and like everybody else, we focus on safety, security, maintaining good health. And then, like many people, we kind of expected this to be over by now,” Hough said. “The curve was gonna flatten and come and go, and that just wasn’t the case.”

The DOC responded to feedback from defense attorneys by adding additional phone lines and computers, Hough said. They also pivoted to a new video conferencing service, Microsoft Teams, which lawyers like Muse say is working much better for talking to clients and showing them important documents.

Installing computers in jails is also not as simple as it sounds. They have to be secure, and in some cases modified, because some of the standard parts can be used to make a tattoo gun or a weapon.

There were many unanticipated effects of the pandemic, Hough said. For example, before COVID, he hadn’t understood why those face-to-face meetings were so important.

“And once that need was identified to us, we took action to meet that need,” Hough said. “Because we do want to be good community partners, and we do want to be fair.”

Still, Hough said, it is always troubling to see a jail at more than 90 percent capacity, and the DOC has been moving more pre-trial inmates from busier facilities like the Anchorage Jail to others. The DOC is also reopening Palmer Correctional Center to accommodate the growing prison population, he said.

At the same time, the Department of Corrections is waiting to see how the court system copes with a massive backlog of cases, as they continue to battle ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks at multiple institutions.