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Alaska DOC’s 1990 Prison Conditions Settlement Still Enforceable

In March 2017, the Alaska Supreme Court held that a 1990 settlement agreement in a class-action prison conditions suit had not been terminated and remained enforceable.

Alaska Department of Corrections (ADOC) prisoners brought a class-action suit challenging prison conditions in 1981. The parties finally resolved the litigation, Cleary v. Smith, in a comprehensive settlement that was incorporated into a 1990 consent decree.

The agreement “included elaborate provisions for future operation of Alaska prisons, enumerated rights of inmates, guaranteed the availability of specific rehabilitative programs and services, required the state to implement an inmate classification system, created population guidelines, and established caps to eliminate overcrowding.” It applied to all present and future prisoners and allowed them to bring compliance challenges after exhausting all available administrative remedies.

In 1999 the state legislature enacted the Alaska Prison Litigation Reform Act (APLRA), AS 09.19.200, which established standards for terminating prospective relief under Cleary and other cases challenging prison conditions.

The ADOC moved to terminate the Cleary consent decree in 2000, pursuant to the APLRA. Prisoners argued that the statute was unconstitutional. Superior Court Judge Elaine M. Andrews concluded that the APLRA was constitutional if it terminated the prospective effect of the Cleary settlement agreement but not the agreement itself.

Judge Andrews held another hearing in Cleary in 2001. After a court-appointed compliance monitor reported that all terms of the agreement had been resolved and judicial oversight was no longer necessary, the court terminated active supervision of the case.

Following the ruling in Gilmore v. California, 220 F.3d 987 (9th Cir. 2000), Judge Andrews issued a 31-page opinion that carefully considered the APLRA’s constitutionality and prisoners’ continuing rights under the Cleary consent decree. She ultimately held that the APLRA should be construed as leaving the settlement agreement intact while restricting the court’s authority to order continuing prospective relief.

Andrews agreed with Gilmore that “it would pose a grave constitutional question if the Alaska legislature was attempting to require the court to terminate a final order and judgment rather than merely terminate the relief available under the consent decree.” She avoided “the more difficult question of constitutionality ... by construing the APLRA narrowly to terminate only prospective relief due parties under the consent decree but not the consent decree itself.”

When neither party appealed, Judge Andrews’ opinion became the law of the case.

In October 2013, James Barber and four other Alaska prisoners filed identical motions in state court alleging violations of the Cleary settlement agreement. Billy Jack Wiglesworth and three other prisoners filed similar motions in March 2014.

Judge John Suddock declined to enforce the Cleary settlement. He concluded that Judge Andrews’ 2001 order had misinterpreted Gilmore, and actually served to terminate the Cleary consent decree even though she did not recognize it at the time.

In a separate case, pretrial detainee Matthew Moore was summarily denied showers, recreation and law library access for failing to comply with the prison’s cell inspection policies. He was not afforded a hearing or review of the decision. Moore then moved to enforce the Cleary settlement agreement.

Judge Suddock rejected Moore’s motion, concluding that he was bringing a disciplinary appeal. The court subsequently denied Moore’s motion for reconsideration.

The Alaska Supreme Court consolidated the appeals and reversed, finding that Judge Suddock had failed to recognize that Andrews’ 2001 order was the law of the case, which had preclusive effect. He also failed to make sufficient findings to overrule her decision.

“Our conclusion today is supported by the policies underlying the law of the case doctrine,” the Supreme Court wrote.
“‘[T]he law of the case doctrine is “a doctrine of economy and of obedience to the judicial hierarchy.” The strong policy reasons behind it include “(1) avoidance of indefinite litigations; (2) consistency of results in [the] same litigation; (3) essential fairness between the parties; and (4) judicial efficiency.”’ These principles are served in this case by requiring the parties to abide by Judge Andrews’s 2001 Order.

“Without applying the law of the case here, there is nothing to stop subsequent superior courts from reinterpreting the APLRA and creating further uncertainty surrounding the Cleary litigation. And although we are aware that this litigation has continued for many years and that ending the Cleary litigation may be a worthwhile goal, consistency and fairness require that the [ADOC] allege and prove sufficient facts and the superior court make sufficient findings before reversing Judge Andrews’s 2001 Order and terminating the Final Settlement Agreement.”

Accordingly, the prisoners’ motions seeking to enforce the Cleary consent decree were allowed to proceed on remand. See: Barber v. Alaska, 393 P.3d 412 (Alaska 2017). 

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Related legal case

Barber v. Alaska