ACLU of Alaska launches effort to cut the number of incarcerated people, improve prison conditions

Corrections currently has about 4,700 people in custody and the number has been trending up for five years 

By: - September 22, 2022 4:00 am

Alaska Department of Corrections has about 4,700 people in custody and the prison population has been trending up for the past five years. (Canva image)

The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska is launching on Thursday an effort to lower the prison population in Alaska and ensure that people in custody are treated with dignity and have access to civil rights. 

Alaska Department of Corrections currently has roughly 4,700 people in custody and the prison population has been trending up for the past five years. 

“Alaska has a mass incarceration problem. It’s growing. Within the next four years, the [Palmer Correctional Center] that was just reopened will be above capacity. So, we don’t want to wait four years to start figuring out how to solve this problem,” said Megan Edge, communications director for the ACLU of Alaska and director of the ACLU of Alaska’s Prison Project. 

The Alaska Prison Project is modeled after the ACLU National Prison Project, with an added focus on improving incarcerated people’s access to justice. Edge said the ACLU of Alaska can be a resource for people who’ve been abused while incarcerated. 

“The Alaska Prison Project is really working to assist incarcerated people seeking relief from abuse by fighting to limit new policies that further restrict prisoners’ access to courts and counsel, assisting prisoners in understanding the processes by which they must pursue relief from any harm that they’ve suffered and representing classes of prisoners seeking relief from abuse,” Edge said. 

Other project goals include ending inhumane and degrading conditions of confinement and expanding prisoners’ freedom of religion, expression and association. 

Our hope is that this project will help get us to a place in Alaska where we have a criminal legal system that's respecting individual rights and also increasing public safety for everyone while reducing fiscal costs.

– Megan Edge, director of the ACLU of Alaska’s Prison Project

The project also aims to increase public accountability and transparency in Alaska jails and prisons and other places of detention. The ACLU of Alaska in April hired a full-time prison investigator to look deeply into how the Alaska Department of Corrections operates. 

“Our hope is that this project will help get us to a place in Alaska where we have a criminal legal system that’s respecting individual rights and also increasing public safety for everyone while reducing fiscal costs,” Edge said. 

The Department of Corrections has a budget of about $407 million, up from last year’s budget of about $396 million. 

To mark the launch of the Alaska Prison Project, ACLU Alaska is having a free public event on Thursday, Sept. 22, from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Williwaw Social Club in downtown Anchorage. The event will feature art by incarcerated individuals, a mix of music and audio recordings by incarcerated people, and storytellers, including formerly incarcerated people. 

Edge said the event is about reducing stigma.

“When we’re talking about public safety, we always hear it’s ‘us’ who are afraid that we’re not safe versus ‘them’ who are dangerous, and we’re all part of the same community. The hope is to bring people together and find commonalities,” she said. 

People looking to volunteer can get involved with the ACLU of Alaska’s Prison Reform Action Network.

“If you have any skill set and you care about this, we can figure out how to work you into the project. We are also always looking for more legal minds that might be interested in this work,” Edge said. 

“We need people power to make this change,” she said. “We’re trying to fix a problem that has been ingrained in people’s minds as a solution for a very long time.” 

At the Thursday night event, there will also be a moment of silence for the 12 people who’ve died so far this year in Corrections custody.

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Lisa Phu
Lisa Phu

Lisa Phu covers justice, education, and culture for the Alaska Beacon. Previously, she spent eight years as an award-winning journalist, reporting for the Juneau Empire, KTOO Public Media, KSTK, and Wrangell Sentinel. She's also been Public Information Officer for the City and Borough of Juneau, lead facilitator for StoryCorps Alaska based in Utqiagvik, and a teacher in Tanzania and Bhutan. Originally from New York, Lisa is a first generation Chinese American and a mom of two young daughters. She can be contacted at [email protected]

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