First of seven parts
Kristin Alexander shuffled into the basement courtroom, handcuffed to a line of worn-out-looking female prisoners. She was 27 but she had a teenager's face, with milky skin and red hair pulled into pigtails. She looked like a girl you might see handing lattes out the window of a coffee cart. A 20-something saving up. A 20-something with plans.
But Kristin had no plans, only serious trouble: a felony charge for having drugs on her when she was arrested for soliciting an undercover cop. She had been out on bail for shoplifting and drug possession at the time.
It was February. I sat in the court gallery next to Kristin's mother, Kathleen Stevens. Kathleen is a psychiatric nurse from Chugiak. She raised Kristin and Kristin's sister on her own. Kristin had been her hard-working oldest daughter, the precocious one, the one she expected to make a mark on the world. But over the last five years, heroin unravelled Kristin's life and took them both places they never imagined.
Kathleen scanned the courtroom while we waited for the judge to get things started. Low-level criminal defendants packed the benches -- people with probation violations, thefts and drug crimes. Harried defense lawyers whispered with lines of clients. An assistant district attorney sorted through a pile of files. Kathleen leaned forward, trying to catch someone's eye, anyone's -- a prosecutor or a defense attorney. A clerk. But no one looked up.
Kathleen wanted to tell anyone who could be convinced not to let her daughter out of jail.
"What kind of mom prays for this?" she asked me. "For her kid to stay in prison?"
Kathleen needed them to understand that Kristin wasn't a thief. She wasn't a prostitute. She was an addict. Crime was a symptom. Her body craved heroin more than food. She'd do anything to get it. And she couldn't give it up on her own. Kristin needed drug treatment. She wanted drug treatment. But there were so many hurdles to getting into a residential program in Anchorage, it would be almost impossible. So Kristin's best option was jail. At least in jail nobody would hurt her. At least in jail she couldn't kill herself with drugs.
Heroin abuse is a growing problem in Anchorage, according to police, prosecutors and drug treatment facilities. Between 2002 and 2009, APD heroin seizures exploded from six to nearly 200. Drug-related prosecutions followed a similar trend. Police say it may now be the most common drug used by prostitutes, eclipsing crack cocaine. Prosecutors and treatment facilities are seeing more young addicts, in their late teens and early 20s, who come from middle-class backgrounds. Many started out abusing prescription drugs and then moved to heroin.
But treatment opportunities for serious drug addiction, which have always been limited in Anchorage, cannot meet the demand. A heroin addict who isn't pregnant can wait a year to become a patient at the city's one methadone clinic. At other facilities, people seeking treatment routinely wait months after going through numerous steps to get on a list. And treatment costs money. Kristin had only debt.
The judge came into the courtroom. Everyone stood up. Kathleen looked frantic.
"Should I try to talk to someone?" she whispered.
Kathleen could barely remember how it was before all of this. In 2005, when it began, Kristin had been a 23-year-old aircraft mechanic, a civilian employee with the Alaska Air National Guard. She swallowed her first pain pill that year after a tonsillectomy. She'd been eager to be an adult. She owned a condo, a car, a motorcycle. She won performance awards at work. Kathleen didn't know it at the time, but Kristin was also being treated for depression. Once Kristin started taking pain pills, she didn't want to stop. The pills got too expensive and hard to get. And one night with a friend, Kristin tried heroin. There was no going back.
Her work performance slipped. She took a leave from her job to try to get clean. She failed.
Kathleen emptied her savings and took a second mortgage to fund attempts at rehab. She stayed with her daughter through violent heroin withdrawal, watched her vomit and sweat. Kristin swore off the drug a hundred times. But heroin has a fierce physical pull. For a long time, Kathleen was waiting for Kristin to hit bottom, but it seemed there was always farther to fall.
Kristin lost her condo. She resigned from her job. She stayed clean for weeks at a time, for months at a time, but she always relapsed. And then, in 2008, she got pregnant. She spent her pregnancy on and off methadone and heroin. She gave birth to a son in May of 2009. Then she relapsed, signed over custody to the baby's paternal grandparents, and dropped out of sight.
Kathleen e-mailed me in January. She'd called everyone she could think of. She'd written the governor. There had to be something better for people like her daughter, she said. People needed to know how hard it was to get drug treatment. How without access to treatment right away, addicts cycled between the streets and jail.
At that time, Kathleen rarely heard from her daughter. Every day she typed Kristin's name into online court records, hoping she might be arrested. If she were, that meant Kristin was still alive. Her name finally appeared in late January. Kristin had been caught shoplifting. Police found drugs in her purse. Kathleen didn't bail her out, but somehow Kristin got the money. A few weeks later, she solicited an undercover police officer for sex along Spenard Road. Once again she was carrying drugs.
In the crowded courtroom, a public defender knelt next to Kristin and they talked. The lawyer said something to the judge. Kathleen leaned forward to hear. The judge turned to Kristin. She could get out of prison, but there would be conditions for her release: a felony drug possession conviction would be set aside if she stayed clean for 30 months. No one asked Kathleen what she thought.
Kathleen began to weep. Didn't these people understand there was no way Kristin could do that? She would use again like every other time. She'd end up back in jail, still addicted and with a felony record. Or worse, she'd overdose. I looked at Kristin. She was crying, too. The attorney handed her a Kleenex. The prisoners handcuffed to her stood, pulling her up. As they filed out the door, I caught a glimpse of her bare arms.
They were lined with purple track marks.
About this series: Heroin use has risen dramatically in Anchorage, and treatment programs cannot keep up with demand. Heroin cost Kristin Alexander her job, her house, her relationships and her son. Eventually it led her to jail. Columnist Julia O'Malley and photographer Marc Lester followed her for the last five months as she tried to rebuild her life without drugs.