Native Justice Center's re-entry program helps ex-inmates fight long odds

Michelle Theriault Boots
Margaret Kelley is a graduate of the Alaska Native Justice Center's adult re-entry program that reintergrates offenders back to communities upon their release from prison.
Bill Roth
Margaret Kelley rides a People Mover bus to go shopping on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012. She is a graduate of the Alaska Native Justice Center's adult reentry program that reintergrates offenders back to communities upon their release from prison.
Bill Roth

For inmates getting out of prison in Alaska, the odds are abysmal.

Two-thirds will go back into Department of Corrections custody within three years, a 2007 study by the Alaska Judicial Council found.

In the same period, 44 percent of them will be jailed for a new crime, the highest rate in the nation, according to data from a 2011 Pew Center for the States report.

That steep climb out of prison prompted the Alaska Native Justice Center to create a re-entry program to help people who have spent years and sometimes decades incarcerated start new lives while bearing the stigma of their pasts.

The program is open to anyone leaving custody, whether convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor. It works by immediately wrapping former inmates in a web of services that provide for both material needs -- such as bus passes, help with rent and warm clothing -- and personal development through vocational training, support groups and a therapy that seeks to help former criminals develop their moral reasoning skills.

Still, the odds are long.

The Department of Corrections reported releasing 1,735 prisoners in Anchorage in 2008.

Of the prisoners released, only a tiny fraction enroll in ANJC's program. About 100 are actively enrolled right now and another 100 are in the application process.

Only 10 percent of those who start the program make it to graduation six months later.

The reasons people fail are numerous and varied, according to program manager Marti Gleeson.

Some slip quickly into substance abuse. Some can't manage the program's rigorous requirements, which include weekly meetings, community service on top of anything court-ordered, finding a sober living environment, and employment or school. Others chafe at post-prison lives already hemmed in by probation and parole rules.

"Their reality is that cops, probation officers and halfway houses are the enemy," she said.

It's not unusual for newly released felons to be back in jail within a week of release, Gleeson said.

Still, demand for the program has increased tremendously, she said.


When an inmate is released from prison, a bus drops him off in the parking lot of the Anchorage Jail.

He's free to go.

Many walk away broke, homeless, without even basic clothing items, Gleeson said.

Joshua Sagayo is an ANJC program graduate who served more than two years in prison for assault. Upon his release in February, he found himself in Anchorage without a hat, backpack or even warm shoes for his new life as a resident of a halfway house and a bus rider.

"I had institution shower shoes," he said.

AJNC gave him a hat and backpack.

In an already tight rental market, felons are the least attractive potential tenants. Some big Anchorage landlords like Weidner Properties won't rent to them at all. People convicted of felony-level drug offenses are not eligible for food stamps. Often their terms of probation or parole forbid living situations where there's alcohol, which limits options for crashing with family or friends. Sometimes driving a car is banned.

But the biggest obstacle to setting up a successful new life is employment, Gleeson said.

"People think, catch bad guys and put them in jail," she said. "There's not a second thought to them getting out."

Gleeson said she thinks re-entry is gaining a new prominence in the corrections world, partly because of a growing recognition that almost all prisoners do eventually get out.

About 95 percent of people incarcerated in Alaska's jails and prisons will be released back into the community, according to the judicial council.

"They are going to work with us and live next door to us," Gleeson said.

Today more nonprofits help recently released inmates. Coalitions for prisoner re-entry exist around the state. The state's Alaska Prisoner Reentry Task Force, created in 2010, released a 131-page "Five Year Prisoner Re-entry Strategic Plan."

In December, Ron Taylor, the former director of the state's Division of Probation and Parole, becomes the Department of Corrections' deputy commissioner for prisoner reentry and programming.

"We do a pretty good job of keeping people locked up," he told the audience at ANJC's re-entry program graduation ceremony, where he was a guest speaker. "But we have to do more than secure confinement."


Margaret Kelley knows what her past looks like on Courtview, the Alaska Court System database where anyone with an Internet connection can look up someone's criminal record.

"Like 40 miles of bad road," Kelley wrote in an email.

Kelley said she's been incarcerated more than a dozen times on charges ranging from reckless driving to assault. Anger, fear and alcohol were behind her decades of problems, she said.

In 2009, she was convicted of growing marijuana with intent to sell at her home in Willow. That netted her a two-year prison sentence and labeled her a felon. The conviction is on appeal.

But so far, she's bucked the statistics attached to newly released felons: She was one of nine people in the most recent class of graduates from the ANJC re-entry program and was chosen to speak at the group's graduation ceremony in November.

Kelley, a wry, sardonic 52-year-old who once worked a high-paying job for a defense contractor and bought her own home with cash at age 34, says ANJC helped her start a new life in Anchorage. The program set her up with rent assistance for transitional housing through another nonprofit called Partners in Progress and provided her with bus passes to help get a job search going.

Lots of people go back to jail because they come out broke and turn to familiar criminal enterprise when they can't find a job, she said, so a little help then can go a long way. For her, the most important part of ANJC is the weekly group meetings where she can talk with others trying to start over.

Kelley may become a peer mentor and start leading such meetings herself, Gleeson said. "I want to go because it simply helps me help myself," Kelley said.

She's still struggling to find permanent employment.

Since July, she said, she has put out about 100 resumes. Finally, an organization she'd worked for as an agency temp asked her back for a potential job. She knows her criminal history may ultimately prevent her from getting it but steeled by the re-entry training, she says she can face whatever happens at peace.

It's part of being convicted of a crime, she said: "People will continue to judge long after the sentence has been served."

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at or 257-4344.