The ACLU of Alaska’s Prison Project gets hundreds of messages a month from incarcerated people seeking legal help. Most of these requests come from incarcerated men; we rarely hear from women at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center (Hiland Mountain), Alaska’s only women’s prison. It wasn’t until we did some investigating, that we uncovered massive constitutional violations regarding access to counsel that were impeding the ability of incarcerated women at Hiland from contacting us.  

All incarcerated people have a constitutional right to seek and receive the assistance of attorneys. Attorney-client privilege is necessary in order to be able to effectively exercise this constitutional right, which allows any client to refuse to disclose and to prevent any other person from disclosing confidential communications with their attorney. 

The following outlines some of the most egregious examples of violations of constitutional rights of Alaskans at Hiland Mountain by the Department of Corrections (DOC).  

  • Several incarcerated women have reported that women are reluctant to write to the ACLU because Hiland Mountain does not consider mail to the ACLU to be “legal mail” and, as a result, any correspondence sent to our organization is read before leaving the facility.
  • Several incarcerated women have reported that, when meeting with attorneys at Hiland, they are required by facility staff to keep the door to the visitation room open, preventing them from having confidential conversations. 
  • A trusted source inside Hiland Mountain reported that at least some private phone calls between incarcerated women and their attorneys are being listened to
  • An incarcerated woman at Hiland had the discovery from her criminal case shared with facility staff and other inmates. From the information available, it appears this occurred because a Staff Sergeant failed to delete the discovery files from the computer where the woman was required to access them, thereby allowing other inmates to view the files. The woman was not the one who shared the documents. This woman filed a grievance related to the disclosure, and three months later she received a letter from the Deputy Commissioner confirming that she was “correct’ and that “a mistake was made.” The letter did not provide details about what measures are in place to prevent this going forward. 
  • A new mail policy at Hiland Mountain (and other DOC facilities) requires that all legal mail be copied and the originals destroyed in front of the incarcerated recipient
  • Two ACLU attorneys recently met with an incarcerated woman at Hiland for the purpose of obtaining legal paperwork. The woman informed the attorneys that facility staff prohibited her from bringing her legal paperwork to the meeting. When our attorneys contacted the correctional officer (CO) about this denial, the CO stated that the woman’s paperwork was not allowed because it was not “legal” because it included items like institutional Requests for Information. Our attorneys informed the CO that such items qualify as legal paperwork. The CO left to retrieve a folder of the legal paperwork. (It is not clear how the CO knew which documents to obtain, and the woman informed the attorneys that the documents the CO brought were a small subset of what she wished to share.) The CO took the folder of legal paperwork to the Hiland superintendent to review. When the CO returned to the visitation room, she informed the ACLU attorneys that the Superintendent had reviewed the paperwork to ensure there were no “threats against facility staff.” 
  • During another recent legal visit to Hiland Mountain, ACLU attorneys were informed that, in order to give a legal document to a client, they would need to first give the document to the staff sergeant. The facility staff member who informed the attorneys of this policy stated that the staff sergeant would read the document before deciding whether to convey it to the client. 

These examples showcase the repetitive constitutional violations that incarcerated people are subjected to at Hiland Mountain. They also violate DOC’s own policies that are put in place to protect these very rights, which suggests they are issues that could be simply solved. In April, we sent a letter to DOC outlining our experiences working with incarcerated people and DOC staff at Hiland Mountain with the hope that they would address these issues. Read the full letter here.  

We have yet to receive a response from DOC.  

This isn’t a new issue for us, or that we’ve seen in the DOC. Earlier this year, we shared critical information regarding access to courts, counsel, and legal resources that incarcerated Alaskans are facing under the DOC. Specifically, we have received reports of legal mail failing to be confidential, inconsistent practices for setting up attorney-client calls and visits, restricted access to counsel while detoxing, and limited access to law libraries and legal computers. These practices make it more difficult for attorneys to represent incarcerated clients, particularly public defenders, private criminal defense and civil attorneys.   

The ACLU of Alaska’s Prison Project is committed to putting a spotlight on the conditions that incarcerated people exist in, and work to ensure that their constitutional rights are upheld while in custody. We must remember that access to counsel is a foundational right and has direct implications for a person’s ability to have a fair trial. We will continue our work to hold DOC accountable for its failure to uphold the constitutional rights of incarcerated Alaskans.