The ACLU of Alaska is attempting to work with the Alaska Department of Corrections (DOC) to reduce the risk of spread of the novel coronavirus disease 2019 in state jails and prisons. In a letter sent to Department Commissioner Nancy Dahlstrom, the ACLU of Alaska details a series of necessary steps corrections officials must take to ensure the health and safety of some of the state’s most vulnerable residents.

“As you know, even under the most favorable circumstances, correctional facilities can act as catalysts for the spread of infectious disease: incarcerated individuals live, work, eat, and recreate in congregate settings where their ability to self-isolate, maintain hygiene, and sustain a clean, sanitary environment is inherently limited,” ACLU of Alaska Policy Director Triada Stampas said. “In addition, incarcerated populations tend to have higher than average incidence of health conditions that elevate their susceptibility to disease.”

The letter follows the recent announcement that four DOC employees, who work at the Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau, tested positive for COVID-19. The April 14 correspondence is also the ACLU of Alaska’s second attempt to work with state officials to relieve Alaska’s already dangerously overburdened correctional system. All suggestions provided are in accord with public health expert recommendations.

Specifically, the ACLU of Alaska suggests:

  • DOC should assess detained and incarcerated populations and maximize the number of people – with a heightened focus on populations identified by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) as particularly vulnerable – who can be immediately released.
  • DOC should develop release plans that do not result in extended periods of detention.
  • DOC should work to ensure that existing policies for good personal hygiene are implemented consistently and uniformly across all DOC facilities.
  • As prison populations decline, DOC should implement social distancing measures as much as practicable.
  • DOC should increase proactive communications to prisoners and their families.
  • DOC should review and reassess its COVID-19 mitigation and response protocols regularly and transparently.

The ACLU of Alaska urged Dahlstrom to take swift, deliberate, and thoughtful action.

“As we’ve seen in other states – like Michigan and Louisiana – a lack of quick, proactive measures can have devastating consequences in a prison setting,” ACLU of Alaska Executive Director Joshua Decker said. “Alaska doesn’t have the death penalty, so going to prison shouldn’t be a death sentence. How this pandemic affects our prison system will be determined by the actions of state officials. That’s why we remain determined to with work with DOC, the Governor’s office, and the other powers that be, to mitigate what could be a tragedy.”