The legislature devoted nearly four hours of committee time last week to needed oversight of the Department of Corrections (DOC), an agency with a nearly $400 million budget and population that is expected to keep growing.
In two days of hearings, the House Community & Regional Affairs committee covered a lot of ground, including punitive parole board practices, availability of rehabilitative programming, visitation closures, inhibited access to the courts, and more. In this post, we’ll cover highlights of the hearings and recap what we learned.
One moment to remember
If you watch one moment from the hearings, make it this remarkable reflection by Rep. Sara Hannan, on the heels of a discussion of the fact that more than half of Alaska’s prison population is unsentenced. She commented on the role that the legislature plays in creating prison conditions, while tying together how people become ensnared in a criminal legal system that fails to address their needs and doesn’t further public safety.
It’s been more than two years since people incarcerated in Alaska’s prisons have been able to hug their loved ones, but that changed this week after the committee, and other lawmakers, pressed DOC for details on their plan.
As usual, DOC was fairly vague.
On March 14, DOC posted online – without an announcement – that in-person visitation was open at all institutions, but visits were still “secure” -- meaning loved ones sit on opposite sides of a Plexiglass barriers, and communicate over recorded phone calls. Secure visitation has ostensibly been used as a COVID safety measure, but it’s a questionable practice when DOC is less stringent with how staff interact with incarcerated people. And secure visitation fails to recognize the importance of visitation, an essential component of maintaining social bonds. On Thursday, Deputy Commissioner Kelly Goode said the number of people visiting was low – but failed to acknowledge that DOC never announced it properly, and only posted a vague update on the department’s website.
Fast forward a week, and DOC has re-opened contact visits – again without any sort of public notice, except a passive mention at a re-entry coalition meeting. While this is great news, we still have questions. Specifically, will it unreasonably limit the length of visits? How will it handle new outbreaks or variants? This should be an opportunity for DOC to examine its overall approach to visitation, and set good policy that prioritizes its importance in a person’s rehabilitation and breaking cycles of harm in families. Contrary to what DOC told the committee, contact visitation is an essential component of re-entry.
Court backlog and the unsentenced population
More than half of Alaska’s prison population is unsentenced, almost all of whom have not been convicted of a crime. The issue has received considerable news coverage, with good reason — the idea that the state confines people in prisons without convicting them of a crime conflicts with our sense of justice and due process principles. DOC indicated that it’s even possible a person charged with a misdemeanor could spend more time in prison than the maximum sentence for the crime, were they to be convicted, because of current backlogs. DOC’s ability to reduce the unsentenced population is limited; even with 2,600 people on “community supervision” before their trial, prisons are still full of unconvicted people. We need solutions for why people get funneled into the criminal legal system in the first place.
Access to rehabilitative programming
The state has a constitutional obligation to provide rehabilitation to a person in prison, and the hearings were an opportunity to assess the actual availability of programs DOC says it offers. DOC provided limited data in its presentation about locations and capacity for some of its programs. We'd still like to see more information on wait lists and completion rates, and hear detail about how it will address staffing shortages and lack of community-based programming.
The state expects DOC to be a provider of mental and psychiatric care, address behavioral health needs, help people get an education and job skills. But we heard again about the complex needs of the people in DOC custody: about two thirds have a diagnosable mental health condition, and at this point DOC is not providing deep, personalized care. It’s triaging. Eighty percent have a substance misuse issue. Seventy-five percent of women in Alaska’s prison population, and a significant and underreported number of men, are victims of sexual assault.
The discussion raised a fundamental question — even with increased capacity, how well can these needs be met in a carceral setting?
The committee focused on why the parole board is granting discretionary parole at a rate lower than any point in at least a decade. Only 16 percent of applicants were granted parole in 2020.
Parole board director Jeff Edwards said “we’re really taking a close look at that,” but couldn’t explain the downturn.
The elephant in the room was Edie Grunwald, who was parole board chair from 2019 until the beginning of March, when she resigned from the position in order to run for Lt. Gov. While Grunwald’s name never came up in the hearings, her posture toward parole applicants in hearings and public statements showed a predisposition for continuing a person’s incarceration and punishment for criminal acts.
A more thorough accounting of Grunwald’s leadership of the parole board is merited. But the parole board’s punitive and arbitrary posture toward applicants predates her leadership.
For instance, Hannan asked Edwards about the “10-year hit,” a practice by which the parole board tells a person that they can’t come back before the parole board for a decade. Edwards said it’s been the parole board’s practice “for years." This practice isn’t legally mandated. But the board has discretion to continue the practice without any guidance about how a person can demonstrate they deserve to be paroled.
It was encouraging that this issue came up in the hearings, which can serve as a building block for seeking greater transparency in the board’s decisions. Longer-term, we need to look at how parole statutes and regulations give governors and the board the latitude to stack the deck against applicants.
Digging into Demographics
It's been the case for years that Alaska Native people are massively overrepresented in the state’s prison population — 40 percent of those incarcerated, compared to 15-20 percent of the state’s overall population. Black people are also overrepresented, making up nearly a tenth of the prison population compared to about 4 percent of the overall state population. But there wasn’t much discussion about the systemic reasons why these disparities exist or how they intersect with other topics discussed during the hearing, like the parole board, which in 2020 granted discretionary parole to Alaska Native people at rates far lower than white applicants. Other important factors, like prosecutorial discretion, access to counsel, or financial ability to make bail, are necessary topics of conversation when talking about racial disparities in the prison population. Any effort to reduce the prison population must also include an effort to address the long-standing racial disparities in Alaska’s prison system.