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Justice system sets Alaska Native men up for failure

John Tetpon

Alaska Native men on probation and parole live under a constant state of siege, which is why our prisons and jailhouses are filled with young men who are there for some kind of parole or probation violation. Their freedom is often conditional on a single edict from the judicial system -- don’t drink -- plus pages of other court orders. Most conditions separate them from family and friends, jobs, homes and even their own villages.

Their comings and goings are set in stone, 24-7, or they will be re-arrested and thrown back in jail. Yet, somehow they must find jobs, places to live, pay their fines, and try to re-establish themselves in a community that doesn’t want to hire them because of their criminal backgrounds. Failing to meet any of the conditions set out by the court will mean being locked up again.

Their homes can be entered by authorities at any time of the day or night and ransacked. They live under the steady fear of arrest at any moment.

Some will eventually choose to go on the lam to stay free. But that is not freedom. It is pure hell. Living in constant fear of arrest, they know theirs is a life on the run. Constantly. If caught, they also know there will be a few more years added to their sentence. That is their lot. That becomes all there is.

Deep inside, they know their life is not the way to live.

There are thousands of young Native men living their lives in this hell-hole with little to no hope of breaking free and becoming normal. It is impossible to live under a constant state of duress and succeed. Only a few lucky ones make it.

The constant threat of arrest remains the single-most serious cause of frustration and loss of hope. The financial burdens imposed on any man on parole and probation are almost unfathomable. Many owe the state of Alaska, or any number of institutions, many thousands of dollars. They know they will remain in financial debt the rest of their lives.

Add on to all of the above the reporting conditions one must deal with while on parole and probation. Being required to report at any time of the day or night means his life is under the absolute control of officials of the court and the police.

There is no reprieve, only pressure. One day perhaps he will decide that drinking is the only escape. And with it will come a few moments of freedom from constant angst and fear until he is brought in for the offense. Some manipulate the violation just to get some rest.

It is a vicious cycle and is inhumane at best. Some choose suicide as the only way out.

I know of young men who finally gave up and died, their frozen bodies found in the dead of winter, with empty beer cans lying around. Their lives were broken and undone to the max. We haven’t talked about that as a community. It is an unspoken chain of shame. Almost to a man except for a close family member, we have but forgotten their names. They’ll be added to someone’s set of statistics.

I have lived in Anchorage for 56 years. Almost every Native family I know has lived through this nightmare. The system has destroyed many families and separated children from parents, and grandchildren from grandparents. The human cost has been great and cruel.

Yet we remain silent.

I have known young Native men who started out with a lot of hope, hope for that great job, a family, a home, a nice car and money in the bank. After 20-some years, that hope begins to fade and is soon lost to a drunken daze and life on the streets. The Brother Francis Shelter and Bean’s Café becomes the norm. The only real effort to live is to get that next drink.

That is a broken life, unfixable except for a few days or nights of the drunken loss of memories of the dreams they once held close to their hearts. The shining light of hope eventually becomes a flicker, barely burning. I don’t know how they do it but many continue to live this way, for years on end.

John Tetpon is an Anchorage journalist who has worked for the Anchorage Daily News and The Anchorage Times, assigned to cover state and federal courts, police and crime, and rural issues. He was also the director of communications for the Alaska Federation of Natives. He is retired and lives in Anchorage.

A version of the preceding commentary first appeared in The Valdez Star and is republished here with the author's permission. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.