Six months ago as the COVID-19 pandemic began, the Department of Corrections suspended outside visits to state facilities to reduce the risk of exposure to staff and inmates.
That means friends, family, outside volunteers and educators have not been allowed to visit since March.
The department says it’s found ways to offer limited education and treatment programming and workarounds, but inmates and advocates say it’s not enough.
Right now at Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau, inmates are basically locked down in their housing units — or mods — 23 hours a day.
They get out for an hour of recreation, but otherwise, they eat, sleep and live with the same group of men or women.
Inmates said that’s created a tense situation with no classes or family visits to break up the time.
“It’s crazy that all that got, basically all of it’s got taken away during a time like this where there’s so much uncertainty and stress,” inmate Ty Walker Davis said by phone recently. He’s been at Lemon Creek for a year waiting for trial, but it keeps getting pushed back. “It’s just a really bad environment.”
Germs spread quickly inside prisons and jails, so when coronavirus arrived in Alaska the Department of Corrections suspended all visitation indefinitely.
But department spokesperson Sarah Gallagher said they’ve found ways to offer limited education and treatment programming.
“Several of our institutions are able to offer self-study curriculum and increased access to programming delivered through a closed circuit television. That is something new that is not available in all of the institutions.”
Some religious services are also being offered on TV.
Gallagher said for drug and alcohol addiction treatment, some one-on-one meetings and small group sessions are happening when possible, and mental health staff are checking in with inmates more often.
“It’s not perfect. But like everyone, they’re kind of receiving modified education at the moment,” Gallagher said.
The inmates interviewed for this story said those things aren’t happening at Lemon Creek. They said it doesn’t feel like a real effort is being made to provide anything close to the programming they had before.
Jeremy Simile said anything offered on the one TV in his mod would be competing against sports or whatever else his 14 cellmates want to watch.
Before the pandemic began, Simile was taking anger management and parenting classes.
“If I don’t take the parenting class, then it affects my classification in whether I can go out on furlough or parole,” Simile said. “The class is a booklet, you can take the booklet and do it yourself as like a correspondence study. However, of course, there’s no booklets.”
At Lemon Creek, inmates said they’re not able to visit the library, but books are being delivered to mods occasionally.
Besides affecting his release date, Simile said he’s worried about what the lack of programming will mean for him and others when they do eventually get out.
“If I take the classes that I’m supposed to take and I behave myself, I could be out in the community and reintegrating within a year,” he said. “So we have a right to this stuff. It’s not something that we’re like, ‘hey, it would be better if you gave it to us.’ It’s like, ‘hey, you’re supposed to provide it and you’re not.’”
Simile is right about programming — inmates in Alaska have a right to rehabilitation that’s been upheld by the Alaska Supreme Court several times.
Megan Edge is a former spokesperson for the Department of Corrections. Now, she’s the communications coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska.
She said the ACLU has been pressuring DOC since the pandemic began for more information about what programs are being offered and when families can visit again.
“When I think of programming, I think of everything from GED certificates to vocational training, to mental health services to, you know, any behavioral health service. Sex offender treatment, anger management — all of that falls under the umbrella of programming,” Edge said.
National data shows that recidivism rates go down significantly for inmates who have access to postsecondary education and treatment programs. They’re more likely to reintegrate back into society and find a job when they’re released.
Edge said many people are in prison or jail for low-level drug and alcohol charges, but they’re not getting the counseling they need right now to learn how to deal with their addiction.
“Meanwhile, they’re still releasing,” she said. “And without that programming, they’re not going to release any better than they were.”
Back inside of Lemon Creek Correctional Center, Simile said he feels like damage is already being done.
Inmates and their families have to pay for phone calls, although DOC says every inmate gets three free, 15-minute phone calls per week.
Still, the charges add up just to stay in touch with loved ones. Simile said his relationship with his fiance has grown strained.
He’s also worried about the impact on his five-year-old son.
“My son the other day said, ‘Dad, do you have brown hair? Do you have black hair? Do you have blonde hair?’ I said, ‘You don’t remember what I look like?’ He said, ‘No, I can’t remember.’ That’s sad.”
DOC does not have a timeline for when regular education and treatment programming, in-person religious services or family visitation will be available again.
Disclosure: Reporter Adelyn Baxter previously taught writing as a volunteer at Lemon Creek Correctional Center.