ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The Alaska Department of Corrections is allowing attorney-client visits to resume within its facilities after a yearlong suspension related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The department said visits can resume starting Wednesday, with limits. For example, the person who is imprisoned must be fully vaccinated and attorneys will be subject to screening, including temperature checks, the department said.
Face coverings and appointments will be required. Transparent dividers will be placed in visitation rooms with “enhanced cleaning” after each use, the department said.
For the past year, those in department custody have had to rely on phone calls from lawyers to discuss their cases, Alaska Public Media reported.
Anchorage defense attorney Rich Curtner said the change in policy is a “big deal.” He is among a group of attorneys who have pushed for more in-person access, which he called essential to preparing clients for court proceedings.
“I think at least they recognize that the attorney-client constitutional rights for clients are important. And, you know, they have to be balanced with COVID risk,” he said.
More than 2,000 people in Alaska’s prison system have tested positive for COVID-19 during the pandemic, department figures show.
Curtner is concerned with the pace with which the department is vaccinating those who are imprisoned.
More than 1,600 people have received at least one dose, about a third of the state’s imprisoned population, Alaska Public Media reported. Dr. Robert Lawrence, the department’s chief medical officer, said the state is working as quickly as possible to vaccinate more.
He said providing greater access to prisons also depends on how much COVID-19 is spreading in surrounding communities.
“It’s not a light switch kind of thing. It’s more like a dimmer switch, where we slowly say, ‘Okay, we have now reached both a vaccine level and a community transmission level, where we can slowly start opening.’”
Broader visitation, including from family members, is not yet allowed. The department’s commissioner, Nancy Dahlstrom, in a release, said the department looks forward “to expanding the opportunity for visitation to loved ones in the near future.”