Sue Hogan looked out over her audience, a sea of women dressed in yellow jumpsuits with the word "prisoner" on the back.
A year ago, Hogan was sitting in that audience at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center, jailed for violating probation on a felony theft conviction. She wore the yellow jumpsuit and listened as a panel of former Hiland inmates talked about staying sober and finding jobs after serving time.
The situation was different on Saturday. Hogan was one of those panelists, and one of the more recent success stories to emerge from an annual conference aimed at helping women just like her.
"Ten months ago, I never thought I would be sitting on this panel," Hogan, 49, told the audience, drawing cheers.
Hogan's words jibed with the inspirational tone of the "Success Inside and Out" conference, which was founded in 2006 to help inmates nearing the end of their sentences make the transition back to society. The one-day conference is jam-packed with classes and mentoring sessions, touching on topics ranging from clothing to housing needs to mental health services to finding a job.
"This is not the be-all end-all," said Judge Stephanie Rhoades, who presides over the Anchorage Mental Health Court and was serving at the conference as a mentor. "This is the beginning of pumping up the volume to make sure that by the time you walk out the door, you've got a plan."
A plan, conference organizers say, translates into a better chance of leaving the criminal justice system for good. A 2012 study by the Alaska Judicial Council found that that about two-thirds of released prisoners are back in custody within three years. Of that population, half return within six months.
About a hundred Hiland women participate in "Success Inside and Out" every year, slightly less than a quarter of the correctional center's total population. The program is designed for inmates who are scheduled to be released within the next year. On Saturday, 32 of the participating inmates were scheduled for release within the next 30 days, said Gloria Johnson, assistant superintendent at Hiland.
No data has been collected about the program and its relationship to recidivism rates, said Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Dana Fabe, who founded the conference.
"On the other hand, I can't help but think that it's making a difference," Fabe said, a view reinforced by Hogan and others.
Fabe said the format of the conference has only changed in small ways since it began nine years ago. A mix of large-group and small-group sessions focus in on education, job skills, writing, healthy eating and fitness activities like Zumba.
One of the highlights each year is a fashion show put on by the owner of consignment boutique Second Run, Ellen Arvold, to demonstrate the "do's" and "don'ts" of dressing for job interviews. Models strut a makeshift runway, encouraging the women to avoid heavy makeup, faux fur and ripped tights in favor of sensible jackets, jeans and scarves.
During the "Passport to Success" session, inmates sat directly across from professionals, most of them female, and discussed their plans for housing, clothing, transportation, mental health services, education and employment once they're released.
At the housing table, Claire Waddoup, an administrative program manager for therapeutic courts in the Alaska Court System, greeted Faye Buckau as she took a seat. When Waddoup asked about Buckau's plans, Buckau said she and her boyfriend plan to move in together.
Waddoup asked if he was a safe person to be with. Buckau replied that her boyfriend was "an alcoholic but it's safe."
Waddoup paused. She gave Buckau a concerned look. They talked a bit more.
"If I were you I'd come up with a plan B," Waddoup told her. "That rings bells for me."
Afterward, Buckau, 25, said she might instead look into moving back in with family in Valdez.
Alice Keyes, 48, has spent six years at Hiland. Her felony arson conviction in 2008 will make it particularly challenging to find housing.
"A lot of doors are closed for me," she said. Finding her own place, away from family, will be key to staying sober, Keyes said.
And staying sober is a crucial, difficult question for many of the women at Hiland. Hogan, the panelist who left Hiland last year, has now been sober for 13 1/2 months. She is about to start a job at a hotel in Anchorage.
While noting her successes, Hogan, a former methamphetamine addict, admitted that she's in a relapse cycle right now. Her ex-husband was shot in the neck four weeks ago and is now paralyzed from the neck down, she said. It was a shock to her system.
That's where Hogan's support network, forged with the help of the conference, comes in, she told the audience. Her phone is now her lifeline.
"I surround myself with those who help keep me sober," Hogan said while on the panel. "These things take time.
"But if you're determined to do it, you'll pull through."