House Eases Rules On Tablet PCs in Prisons

By JAMES BROOKS
Alaska Beacon
    Alaskans in state prisons would be allowed to use tablet PCs in their cells for education and legal purposes, according to a new bill passed by the Alaska House of Representatives on Thursday.
    House Bill 330, sponsored by Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, partially reverses a longtime ban on electronic devices for state prisoners, but only with the permission of prison officials.
    Speaking Thursday on the House floor, Vance said she was initially opposed to the idea when she first heard it several years ago but came to realize that having access to a tablet was important for rehabilitation purposes.
    Education is key to helping former inmates reenter society, Vance said, and there aren’t enough teachers in prison, so electronic education programs are needed.
    “For every dollar spent on correctional education, $5 are saved in three-year reincarceration costs, amounting to a remarkable 400% return on investment,” Vance said. “So House Bill 330 not only enhances public safety, but offers a prudent investment in societal well-being.”
    The bill doesn’t pay for inmates’ tablets or computers but allows the Alaska Department of Corrections to write regulations around their use.
    HB 330 also would ban telephones in prison cells; current state law does not address prisoners’ cellphones.
    In partial compensation for that new restriction, the House voted without dissent to amend the bill to ban surcharges that are levied on telephone service in state prisons.
    Currently, private companies provide phone service to inmates, often at high prices.
    It now costs $3.75 per minute for someone to call an inmate or for an inmate to call someone, said Rep. Andrew Gray, D-Anchorage and the sponsor of the amendment. He believes the cost will fall to 7 cents per minute after the state prison system signs a new phone contract.
    Lawmakers said it’s important for rehabilitation purposes that inmates stay in contact with their families, and that if a parent is incarcerated, their child must be allowed to contact them.
    “It is very clearly in the public interest to allow parents to talk to their children,” said Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage.
    Another amendment forbids the state from charging prisoners for access to email or “electronic visitation” akin to a video-conference call.
    House Bill 330 passed the House on a 33-7 vote and advances to the Senate for further consideration.
House aims to create psychedelic drugs task force
    Anticipating that the federal Food and Drug Administration will authorize the limited use of psychedelic drugs for medical treatment later this year, the House voted 36-4 to create a 13-member legislative task force that will offer recommendations on the possible use of those drugs in Alaska.
    Rep. Jennie Armstrong, D-Anchorage and the bill’s sponsor, said she doesn’t view the task force as a step toward legalization of psilocybin or similar drugs, but as a way to responsibly implement them in medical settings.
    “I think we can all agree that if it is coming, we should be prepared,” she said.
    House Bill 228 would require that the task force deliver recommendations to the Legislature no later than Jan. 31, 2025. The bill advances to the Senate for further work.
House seeks to permanently extend education tax credit
    Also on Thursday, the House voted 35-4 to repeal the sunset date on the state’s education tax credit program. The program gives tax credits to companies that donate to certain educational institutions. In place since 1987, the program is set to expire at the end of this year.
    The sunset date repeal was part of Senate Bill 140, the big multipart education bill vetoed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, and now advances to the Senate as House Bill 144, a separate piece of legislation.
      On Wednesday, the House:
    –   agreed to allow the state’s utility regulators to set rules for natural gas storage facilities, a project envisioned as a way to avert a pending energy crunch in Southcentral Alaska. House Bill 394 advances on a 29-11 vote to the state Senate, where it will meet a companion bill advancing separately there.
    – voted to allow employers to pay workers with cash-loaded debit cards instead of a direct deposit or cash, if the employee agrees. House Bill 203, sponsored by Rep. Jesse Sumner, R-Wasilla, passed by a 38-2 vote and advances to the Senate.
    – acted to ban cities and boroughs from prohibiting certain kinds of cars based on their power source. House Bill 375, carried by McCabe, was inspired by rules in some California locations that prohibit the sale of internal-combustion engines. No such rules have been proposed in Alaska, and McCabe said the bill would also prohibit municipalities from banning electric vehicles, hydrogen cars, or even nuclear-powered vehicles. HB 375 is scheduled for a hearing in the Senate Transportation Committee on Tuesday.
    – unanimously called on Congress and the federal government to fix the “Windfall Elimination Provision” that penalizes many Alaska teachers’ Social Security benefits. House Joint Resolution 18 is scheduled for a Senate State Affairs Committee hearing on Tuesday.
    – voted 39-1 to approve a resolution asking federal officials to improve their handling of seafood trade. A previous version of Senate Joint Resolution 14 already passed the Senate, and the note will return to the Senate for approval of some amendments made by the House.
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20 YEARS AGO

July 2004
Photo caption: Junior League All Stars will compete in a tournament in Wrangell. From left are Bryn Calhoun, Chris Scott, Sean O’Neill, Ross Venneberg, Caleb McGraw, Richard Carlos, Jacob Houston, Coby McCarty, Bryan Lovett and Daniel Erickson.

50 YEARS AGO

July 1974

Photo caption: Volunteers leave the Yaw Building Library with loads of books being transferred to the new Orin and Betty Stratton Library on the Sheldon Jackson campus. SJC librarian Evelyn Bonner expressed appreciation to the community for the help.

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