Kristin Alexander leaned against the counter in the discharge area at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center, filling out paperwork. It was mid-March, a month and a half since the last time she shot-up, injecting heroin and cocaine into her neck in the bathroom of a Holiday gas station.
Kristin had on the clothes she'd been wearing when she got arrested for prostitution. Chunky black boots, fuzzy black sweat pants, a thin purple shirt decorated with black chains, and a newish North Face jacket.
I visited her a few times in jail with photographer Marc Lester. She told us about de-toxing from heroin, how sick she felt, how she still woke at night in a sweat. She said she wanted to stay clean for real. She wanted to be a mother to her baby. She wanted to be part of the working world. But everything hinged on treatment. Getting on a list. Getting in. Getting through it. Getting another chance. She agreed to let us follow her and to document whatever happened.
"Who's going to want to sell drugs to a girl with her picture in the paper?" she said.
I could tell she wanted to change her life, but I didn't know how realistic that was. I'd read that heroin use changes the brain, that it hard-wires it for drug dependency. I read one study that followed heroin users for more than 30 years. It found they were twice as likely to die from their addiction as they were to stay clean for five years.
I also talked to Sgt. Kathy Lacey, who heads the Anchorage Police Department unit that deals with drugs and prostitution. She told me there were a lot of women out there like Kristin.
"I don't see a lot of success stories," she said.
Most addict-prostitutes on Anchorage streets are using heroin, Lacey said. She couldn't remember a time when so many of them were trying to get into treatment. The problem is that women get out of jail and they have to wait. They usually try to stay clean with 12-step meetings, but that's not enough. Getting clean means emptying out a life and starting over, ending every relationship, finding a new way to make a living. But often they get out of jail with nothing. Everyone they know uses. They end up on someone's couch. Pretty soon they're back selling themselves, getting high, she said. Eventually they end up in a squad car.
At the prison, I watched a corrections officer give Kristin the money she had when she was arrested: $11.97. It was about all she had. Rent was due on her apartment. Her cell phone was cut off. But those weren't her most immediate problems.
Kristin needed a ride. The officer put the phone on speaker and dialed the number of a friend, but a machine picked-up. Kristin hesitated. She gave the officer another number. The phone rang. A woman answered.
"Yes?" Kathleen Stevens, Kristin's mother, sounded tired.
"Are you able to come pick me up, or ..."
Kathleen was on her way to work. She couldn't come right then. She hadn't known Kristin was getting out. She paused.
"Never mind," Kristin said.
OK, Kathleen said. She would make it work.
Corrections would drop Kristin off at a bus stop in Eagle River. Kathleen would pick her up at the nearby library in an hour and a half.
Marc and I followed the jail car to the bus stop. Kristin got out and stood on the side of the street. A bitter wind whipped up the snow. A youngish guy trudged by. She asked him if she could buy a cigarette for $1. He gave her one and helped her light it.
I wondered what she would do if we weren't there watching her. Kristin inhaled and smiled. She was hungry, she said.
We followed her up a steep hill to a McDonald's. She walked in and stood in front of the illuminated menu board. Kristin ordered a Happy Meal and a strawberry shake.
The food came with a plastic toy shaped like a baby. It had a little screen where the mouth was supposed to be. If the digital mouth cried, you had to push a heart-shaped button to "love it," so it would stop crying. I watched Kristin push the button. I remembered she had a real baby of her own.
"I want coffee," Kristin said.
She dialed her mom's cell phone, but Kathleen didn't pick up. Kristin left a message that she wasn't going to be at the library after all. We followed her to a coffee shop. She ordered a coconut americano. I watched a couple guys in ball caps by the door staring at her. Marc and I were both watching the clock. It was past the time she was supposed to meet Kathleen. Finally, a car appeared that Kristin recognized. It was her stepdad. He gave her a hug. She asked him to take her to Spenard. She wanted to find a recovery meeting.
We saw her again a few hours later in a parking lot behind the Spenard Roadhouse. She said she wanted to throw away a bunch needles left in her apartment. A friend was on the way to be with her when she did it.
Kristin lived in the Castle Apartments, a complex done in a medieval theme, with flags on the roof and signs printed in a Celtic font.
Her place had been partly paid for by public assistance, but now that she had a drug conviction, she was going to lose it. She didn't know how she was going to pay rent anyway. A car pulled up and the friend got out.
The lobby of the apartment building smelled like cigarettes and Pine-Sol. Nobody said anything in the elevator on the way up. When we got to her apartment, she stopped Marc and me outside. We stood in the hall listening to her rustling around on the other side of the door.
After a few minutes she appeared holding a garbage bag. There were about 50 needles inside it, she said. I asked her if there was heroin, too. She paused. Just enough left in the spoon to get high, she said.
We rode downstairs and followed her across the icy parking lot. She lifted the lid of a trash bin and dropped the bag inside.
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DRUGS AND JAILS: Most inmates in Alaska have substance abuse problems, and our jails are likely the biggest detox centers in the state. Join the discussion on Julia's blog adn.com/jomalley
By JULIA O'MALLEY