A judge has ordered the Alaska Department of Corrections to allow in-person visitation between lawyers and their clients in jail, regardless of the clients’ COVID-19 vaccination status.
The order comes as misdemeanor trials are set to resume April 19 and felony trials June 1, after being mostly put on pause for more than a year due to the pandemic.
The Department of Corrections suspended all visitation at its facilities in March 2020 as a precaution against the virus, which infected 2,145 and killed five people in Alaska prisons.
Earlier this year, as case counts declined and Alaska slipped into the minority of states still barring in-person meetings between lawyers and jailed clients, the Alaska Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers filed a lawsuit, saying in-person visits are crucial to building trust and providing effective legal counsel.
“You can build a relationship over the phone and over video conference, but it’s not the same quality relationship, right?” said Jeffrey Robinson, a former public defender and association member.
As part of the case against DOC, Robinson said the association received troubling statements from its members about clients not trusting them and getting shoddy legal advice from other prisoners.
“They’ve never met their attorney, they don’t know what that person looks like,” Robinson said. “And so a lot of the attorneys that we were getting affidavits from had told us that their clients are just mistrustful of their advice, they’re turning to jailhouse lawyers.”
DOC announced last month it would allow in-person visits to resume between fully vaccinated prisoners and lawyers. But the association said that wasn’t good enough, with the resumption of trials fast approaching, so they went back to court to ask for an injunction.
Superior Court Judge Una Gandbhir agreed, and granted the injunction in an order Monday, saying that continuing to prevent such visitation would cause “irreparable harm” to the clients. She also noted DOC is not requiring its own employees to get vaccinated.
As of Wednesday, DOC said it had 4,537 people in custody and had fully vaccinated about 1,600 of them.
DOC officials declined a request for an interview and did not respond to emailed questions about whether the department would appeal the order.
But Robinson, with the statewide Association of Defense Attorneys, said he’s heard anecdotally DOC will not appeal. Lawyers are scheduling in-person visits with clients for as soon as Thursday.
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to accurately reflect the number of inmates in DOC custody.