The tide is slowly changing on how Alaskans view prisoner reentry and rehabilitation, and the people involved hope it may spark dialogue in Alaska communities.
Four local prisoner reentry coalitions have formed across the state in recent years in an urban hub like Anchorage along with the Mat-Su, Kenai and Juneau. But now that's shifting to rural Alaska -- specifically the rural hub of Dillingham. The Western Alaska community of about 2,300 on Nushagak Bay is working toward getting a coalition of its own, with the help of a massive grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.
Last year, Bristol Bay Native Association received $730,000 to help establish a culture based-prisoner re-entry and rehabilitation program in the region. Tribal court enhancement program manager Kimberly Martus said the group will begin community meetings next month, launching the discussion on what the Dillingham region has -- and needs -- in terms of prisoner rehabilitation services.
"Reentry is a fact," Martus said. "But it's a different fact in rural Alaska."
Cutting Alaska's recidivism rate
Re-entry is part of a change taking place at both state and national levels, shifting the conversation about how the public accepts prisoner re-entry.
Ronald Taylor, state deputy commissioner of prisoner reentry and rehabilitation, said 95 percent of all prisoners eventually return to society. With prisons packed and cost of keeping those prisoners skyrocketing, communities are increasingly seeking ways to keep people out of prison.
The goal of the coalitions and the Department of Corrections is to help criminals who have served their time successfully adapt to a new life, Taylor said. "When they are released, what's going to happen? It has to be more than just (prison) and parole," he said.
'Lifting the veil'
Re-entry isn't simple, even for prisoners returning to Alaska's urban areas, where greater options exist. Taylor said every felon faces 492 legal hurdles in trying to reenter society. Most center around the difficulty landing a job. Housing and employment can pose massive barriers, too.
In rural Alaska, the transition can be even more complicated. Martus said prisoners often serve time far from their families, especially if they end up in prison out of state. And families are often the foundation of prisoner reentry. Studies have shown that strong family support helps prevent recidivism, which is high in Alaska. Two out of three prisoners will commit a crime within three years of their release, according to a Department of Corrections study. About half of those occur within the first year.
In the Dillingham region -- which includes 31 villages surrounding the hub town – there's one probation officer serving an area roughly the size of Ohio. The grant will help establish a re-entry coalition in the area to connect former prisoners to support networks.
Martus said politicians have been able to frame the prisoner re-entry debate in "superficial terms." But engaging the community and other stakeholders is complex, she noted. "It's not like there's no a desire or interest, but there's been very little action to take a look at this issue."
Dillingham lacks establish transitional housing or a halfway house today, but Martus hopes the Department of Justice grant will change that.
A slow change
Marti Greeson has been involved with law enforcement and prisoner issues since the 1980s, first as a police officer in Colorado and later as the state executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Now as reentry program manager for the Alaska Native Justice Center, she's noticed how public opinion -- and enforcement of prisoner reentry -- has changed at both the state and national level.
"Whether it was substance abuse or criminal behavior or early-life trauma, we've start to look at them as individuals," Greeson said. "Where did they come from? How did they get to this place, and how can they get successful?"
Through the Alaska Native Justice Center, Greeson has been working with other coalitions across the state. So far the Anchorage coalition, which started in the 1990s, is the most developed. By contrast, the Dillingham and Juneau versions are just starting.
She and others are working with correctional facilities across the state on doing a better job implementing pre-release entry plans, so prisoners have some stability before they leave correctional facilities.
The state is adding three probation officers during this next fiscal year according to Taylor.
Taylor sees the coalitions and other programs as just "scratching the surface" of prisoner reentry services.
"I don't want it to be a fad," he said. "I don't want people to mouth (reentry) and not mean it."
Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com
CORRECTION: An early version of this story incorrectly identified the Bristol Bay Native Association as the Bristol Bay Native Corp.