‘What we do doesn’t work’: As warden, he tried to radically change the culture of Alaska’s maximum-security prison. It led to his exit.

Bill Lapinskas’ most ambitious efforts to put Spring Creek Correctional Center at the unlikely forefront of prison reform in Alaska didn’t survive a change in elected leadership. Out of a job, he’s now free to talk about why.

SEWARD — Bill Lapinskas started working at Alaska’s only maximum-security prison when he was a young man, just a few years out of high school. Over the next two decades he rose through the ranks, spending his days alongside guys doing life for murder.

By the time he became superintendent in 2016, he was convinced: Prison takes broken people and makes them worse. And all but a few are eventually released, dropped off at the Seward bus depot with a cardboard box of their belongings and a ticket to Anchorage. As superintendent, he was not interested in overseeing what he saw as a failing system of punishment.

“I’ve always seen what we do doesn’t work,” said Lapinskas, a blunt, burly man whose tattoos creep beyond the sleeves and neck of his business-casual button-downs. “It’s bulls--t, for lack of a better word.”

Lapinskas started to make changes, some of them based on his gut feelings, about how to make the culture at Spring Creek less about violence and despair and more about regeneration. He reduced the use of solitary confinement, placed an emphasis on earning GED diplomas and supported prisoners leading groups discussing everything from moral reasoning to sobriety. It didn’t seem like there was much stopping him.

“I’m not pro-prisoner,” he said. “I don’t think any one of those guys should get a free ride. But their sentence is separation from the community. They lose their freedom. It isn’t for us to menace them every day and make them worse human beings.”

The work put Spring Creek, known for housing some of the state’s most notorious criminals, at the unlikely forefront in Alaska of prison reform, a national movement that seeks to make incarceration more humane, open and rehabilitative.

Lapinskas hoped his vision would survive a change in the state’s elected leadership.

But in January, a conflict with Department of Corrections leadership over management of a re-entry housing unit led to an early, ugly retirement for Lapinskas.

The corrections department had to crack down on some elements of Lapinskas’ re-entry experiment because they violated regulations, said Jeremy Hough, the deputy director of institutions.

[Earlier coverage: Rethinking Alaska’s only maximum-security prison]

Now Lapinskas, 50, and others are wondering what the future of prison reform looks like in Alaska.

“He was trying to make this huge culture shift,” said Cathleen McLaughlin, the former director of Partners for Reentry, an Anchorage nonprofit that helps people transition out of prison. “And what kills me is — it was working.”

‘Back to basics’

Last year, Lapinskas embarked on his most ambitious project yet: a housing unit meant to “immerse” prisoners preparing to re-enter society in the challenge they were about to face.

The re-entry unit launched in October 2018, near the end of the tenure of former commissioner Dean Williams. It involved some unorthodox calls for a prison warden to make, like not forcing certain inmates to be locked in their cells at night in service of preparing for release.

Lapinskas said the DOC under Williams was supportive of the unit and its approach.

“100%,” he said.

By November 2019 the experiment in Spring Creek’s “Juliet Mod” housing unit earned the ire of the Department of Corrections’ top leadership under Commissioner Nancy Dahlstrom, who was appointed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

Dahlstrom has pursued a “back to basics” approach for running Alaska’s prisons, including stripping back some policies viewed as soft or indulgent, such as no longer allowing volunteers to enter prisons outside of visiting hours, restricting the amount of property inmates can take when they move from one facility to another, and banning homemade treats like cupcakes from in-prison diploma graduations and other celebrations. More substantively, Dahlstrom also closed an internal investigations unit formed during the tenure of former commissioner Dean Williams.

Dahlstrom refused repeated requests for an interview for this story.

The re-entry mod

Spring Creek’s re-entry housing unit was always a contradiction, in that it was supposed to be a place where inmates could be “immersed in the world of re-entry” within the confines of a maximum-security prison.

Lapinskas paired men soon to be released up with lifers, with the idea that the men likely never getting out could act as mentors and help the younger men understand the opportunity of freedom -- a counterintuitive plan to people on the outside that Lapinskas said made perfect sense in the world of prison.

He converted some cells into something resembling apartments, complete with real mattresses on beds and televisions mounted on walls. Inmates could wear street clothes.

He even stopped locking the cell doors of the re-entry housing unit at night for men with 30 days or less to release, allowing the inmates to move about freely in the locked mod.

His rationale: Prisoners in the unit were less than two months to “the door,” as release is known. If they couldn’t be trusted with a few freedoms now, how could they be considered trustworthy on the outside?

Toby Spece, 42, in on a drug charge, was one of the prisoners selected to live in the unit. An earlier version of him would have found it “disgustingly boring,” he said.

“Oh my God. It was so different. There was no selling drugs, doing drugs. Making alcohol. Gang banging. Fighting,” Spece said.

The mentors used their influence in the delicate hierarchy of prison gangs to protect the guys soon to be released, helping extract them from drug and gang obligations so they could get to release without infractions that would set them back, Spece said.

“Most of those guys are never getting out, at least not for a long time,” Spece said. “They want to save others from the pain of what their situation is.”

The other big idea was to “deinstitutionalize” men. Lapinskas had encountered former prisoners in places like the Anchorage Fred Meyer who’d talked about how hard simple things were to adjust to after years of prescribed prison life. One man said he couldn’t sleep in a bedroom unless he was locked in. Others confessed longing for the familiarity of prison.

To that end, Lapinskas let the men in the re-entry unit Skype with men who’d been released about the everyday challenges of getting official state identification cards, or filling out apartment rental applications. Men’s Wearhouse donated clothes for the men so they could wear something other than prison garb on release day.

Spece remembers a workshop on how to tie a necktie -- a simple, almost silly thing but also the kind of life skill Lapinskas didn’t want the men to walk into the world of job interviews lacking.

The department’s response

The Department of Corrections was not enthused.

In November, Lapinskas got a letter from Hough, the deputy director of institutions.

The letter told Lapinskas that Juliet Mod was operating in violation of all kinds of policies, ranging from allowing inmates to wear street clothes to giving them power over each other through the mentor program to “excessive art and decorations” on the walls.

It wasn’t a huge surprise that the administration, which had professed a focus on security and confinement, would take issue with Lapinskas’ freewheeling efforts.

“What Bill was doing was novel to Spring Creek,” said McLaughlin. “(The DOC) was using all these very comfortable excuses, trying to rein him in.”

Lapinskas said he was told to stop doing most of the things he believed made the Juliet Mod program work. The phrase “evidence based best practices” was used a lot, which Lapinskas considered a series of empty buzzwords.

“At some point I came to the realization, they are gonna ruin everything I’ve done,” Lapinskas said. “And they are gonna make me do it.”

In an interview, Hough, the corrections deputy director of institutions, said the department was just trying to get Lapinskas to follow the rules and regulations. And prisons have a lot of rules and regulations.

“For one, he violated statute 22 AAC 05.400,” Hough said, quoting a state regulation that governs inmate conduct ranging from “engaging in persistent nuisance noise” all the way to rioting, just one of several he says Lapinskas ran afoul of.

Hough said it’s not fair to say the department doesn’t support innovative or reform-minded management of prisons. To back up that claim, he offered a spreadsheet of programs available at Alaska correctional institutions, including Spring Creek.

But what Lapinskas was doing did not involve “evidence driven best practices,” Hough said.

Also, “nobody authorized the quote-unquote innovative programs Mr. Lapinskas was running,” Hough said.

Hough says the re-entry mod hasn’t been shut down, exactly.

“We are getting back to a re-entry mod that will have the appropriate population and programming,” he said.

Lapinskas sees it another way: He believes the Dahlstrom administration is interested in an old-school style of prison management relying on “hats, bats and BDUs” -- guards in “battle dress uniforms” using physical force to keep inmates in line.

He says he met Dahlstrom twice -- once when she toured the prison with Dunleavy and media after a May riot in the Hotel Mod housing unit that caused $100,000 in damage.

In January, Lapinskas turned in his retirement papers.

Two days before his scheduled last day of work, Lapinskas said, a manager showed up from the commissioner’s office and gave him what he says was by far the worst evaluation of his 26-year career. He says he was walked out of the building.

He hasn’t been back.

‘Humanity and safety’

After a moment of embracing prison reform, Alaska seems to be moving away. That’s increasingly out of step with the rest of the country.

States ranging from conservative North Dakota to progressive Oregon have been looking for ways to make their prisons more humane and open. In North Dakota, prisoners are now referred to as “residents” and designed to be as much like the outside world as possible within safety guidelines. Oregon’s new corrections plan draws from the “radically humane” Norwegian system, an inspiration for many states experimenting with prison reform.

A coterie of Alaska leaders, including then-corrections commissioner Dean Williams and lawmakers, visited those Scandinavian prisons in 2017 and came back inspired. Williams experimented with changes like creating a “nature room” at the Anchorage jail, meant to mitigate some of the psychological harm of solitary confinement, and hiring new staff focused on re-entry.

The incoming administration under Gov. Mike Dunleavy “came in with such zeal to repeal anything Williams had done, and anyone associated with Williams,” Lapinskas said.

Several senior leaders in the department left or retired. And some of the Williams programs, like the still-new internal investigations unit, have been disbanded.

Williams, who is now the head of the Colorado Department of Corrections, said he believes improving prison culture is “key to reducing the troubling recidivism rate,” which in Alaska hovers around 66%. Lapinskas’ efforts “advanced humanity and safety for both inmates and staff” when he ran Spring Creek, Williams said.

He declined to speak directly about the changes in direction at the corrections department.

These days, the focus seems to be on containing humans and costs more than on cultural change, said McLaughlin, the former Partners for Reentry chief.

For a moment, Alaska was an “incredible model” for how prison reform could work, said McLaughlin.

“My heart’s a little broken about that.”

Life after Spring Creek

Lapinskas is having a hard time adjusting to life after Spring Creek. His days outside the prison walls are unstructured, quite the opposite of running a prison.

He wonders what’s becoming of the guys getting out of Spring Creek -- 125 or so per year.

Being tough on criminals sounds good, says Lapinskas. But what happens when someone locked up for decades moves down the street from you? Lapinskas has a few neighbors who are Spring Creek alums. He sees them raking leaves or shoveling snow.

He wonders: Do Alaskans really want their neighbors to be hardened and terrorized by their time in prison, or healed by it?

Toby Spece, the Spring Creek prisoner who spent time in the re-entry unit, got out in October. He spent years doing time at prisons in Alaska and beyond.

He’d never known a warden quite like Lapinskas.

“Lapinskas stands out as a lone wolf,” Spece said. “I haven’t come across anybody who really cared about people like he did. I’ve seen tears well up in his eyes.”

He keeps up with other graduates of the re-entry mod in a Facebook group. For Spece, life is pretty good. He got parole permission to move to Ohio, where he lives with his wife.

“I’m driving a tow truck, staying sober,” he said. “Doing everything me and Lapinskas talked about.”

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.