Judge moves to end longtime court oversight of state's prison conditions

Posted: Wednesday, December 20, 2000

JUNEAU -- Direct court oversight of Alaska's prison system would end under a judge's ruling in favor of a new law passed by the Legislature, the Department of Corrections said Tuesday.

The ruling by Superior Court Judge Elaine Andrews terminates the prospective effect of the consent decree that settled the Cleary class action lawsuit. That 1981 lawsuit accused the state of violating prisoners' rights under the Alaska Constitution.

"It ends oversight and monitoring of Cleary," said Allen Cooper, the department's director of institutions. "If there's a violation of their rights they can always file a court action regardless of Cleary."

The decree prohibited prison overcrowding and set minimum standards for such things as prison libraries, grievance procedures and when inmates should get clean laundry and exercise.

Andrews terminated future oversight because of a law passed last year by the Legislature that allowed the Department of Corrections to seek dismissal of the decree if there were no ongoing violations. The prisoners who originally filed Cleary maintain the law is unconstitutional and plan to appeal Andrews' ruling, said Scott Taylor, their attorney.

However, Taylor said the department's good behavior has gradually led to a near-disappearance of court oversight anyway.

"What does it all mean? Probably not a whole lot," Taylor said. "If they're not going to make any changes, the system is going to go along as it has."

Andrews' two-page ruling offered little detail or explanation. She promised a longer opinion within 60 days.

Cooper agreed the Cleary decree's requirements have become part of department policy and said he did not expect that to change.

"It's just become standard operating procedure," Cooper said. "Operations are not going to change."

The department has 2,656 inmates in its prisons, well below the Cleary overcrowding cap of 2,786, Cooper said. Housing 796 prisoners in Arizona and 653 in halfway houses eases the pressure, he said.

However, the money that keeps those inmates in private prisons in Arizona irked budget writers in the Republican-controlled Legislature. House Finance Committee Co-Chairman Eldon Mulder, an Anchorage Republican, sponsored the law allowing the dismissal of the decree partly out of frustration with budget increases prompted by Cleary requirements.

"The danger in all this I see is that the Legislature should not get the idea from this order that they can shut down the contract in Arizona and bring everybody back," Taylor said.

Mulder was vacationing in Australia and could not be reached for comment.

Cooper said he did not expect an attack on his budget because of the decision.

"What runs our department is numbers," Cooper said. "It doesn't mean we're going to bring back 800 prisoners from Arizona."

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