Alaska judge orders in-person attorney visits at prisons

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — An Alaska judge has ruled that attorneys must be allowed visits with clients in state Department of Corrections facilities, regardless of the inmates' vaccination status.

The recent ruling by Superior Court Judge Una Gandbhir came in a case brought in January by defense attorneys who argued that a continued ban on attorney-client visits deprived defendants of their right to legal counsel, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

In March 2020 amid COVID-19 concerns, the Department of Corrections stopped in-person visits at its facilities.

Last month, with the growing availability of COVID-19 vaccines, the department said attorney visits could resume but only with inmates considered fully vaccinated -- or at least two weeks after their last vaccine doses.

Gandbhir wrote that with criminal trials expected to resume soon in Alaska, delays in allowing lawyers and clients to meet “might prove fatal to the liberty interests of countless currently incarcerated Alaskans."

Sarah Gallagher, a corrections department spokesperson, said the agency will comply with the order. Gallagher said appointments must be scheduled in advance and that face coverings must be worn. She also said there will be health and temperature screenings for attorneys when they arrive.

Family and friends still cannot visit inmates, according to the department.

Even with visitation barred, COVID-19 spread within many Alaska corrections facilities.

According to the department, as of Tuesday, about 35% of those imprisoned had completed their vaccination series. Inmates are offered vaccines but are not required to receive them.

In court filings, attorneys argued that phone calls did not substitute for sitting with clients.

“Many clients I have represented have been paranoid about communicating over the prison phone system for fear they might be monitored,” Benjamin Muse, an assistant federal defender, wrote in an affidavit filed with the lawsuit.

Muse wrote that he did not believe the court system could "fairly resume jury trials for all in-custody clients until the DOC permits in custody visitation.”

Burke Wonnell, an assistant federal defender, said some people incarcerated have begun listening to the advice of other inmates, rather than attorneys with whom they could only communicate only by phone.

“I have seen an increase in the number of my clients taking the advice of ‘jailhouse lawyers’ instead of mine,” Wonnell wrote.