Rethinking Alaska’s only maximum-security prison

Bill Lapinskas is changing expectations about how inmates serve time in Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward — and he thinks the rest of the state might benefit.

SEWARD — Bill Lapinskas has two offices inside Spring Creek Correctional Center — one in Hollywood and one in Compton. Hollywood is his nickname for the businesslike administrative wing. Compton is a windowless, cinder block room on the ground floor, an arm’s reach from the men convicted of the most serious offenses and dangerous behaviors. That’s where Lapinskas would rather be.

Lapinskas, 49, is leading an effort to rethink Spring Creek, which he oversees. Ideas are like confetti in his brain, he said, to change the culture of the prison that holds 400-plus inmates and employs 169 people.

Much has already changed in Lapinskas' 2 1/2 years in the top job. Increasingly, prisoners earn diplomas, turn to each other for sobriety and gather for high-minded discussions. They spend fewer days in solitary confinement. Some correctional officers, whose careers are historically prone to burnout, feel emboldened to bring new ideas to bear.

"Let's burn people out doing the good work rather than burn people out fighting with hats and bats," said Lapinskas, who started as a correctional officer at Spring Creek 26 years ago.

Lapinskas hopes it's a movement away from the us-versus-them mentality that he said molders toxic attitudes and feeds the high recidivism rate for which all Alaskans pay.

"Rather than menace them and just enforce rules every day, why aren't we trying to invoke change? Real change," he said. "Not force it, but entice it and seduce it and get it out of these guys through meaningful conversation and decency."

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Lapinskas said changes so far have cost the state little to nothing. Appreciative inmates emphasize that their sentences haven't changed inside Spring Creek's multiple razor-coil topped fences.

"The capital-T truth is I will still shoot you dead-ass dead on the last fence," Lapinskas said of a hypothetical escape attempt. "That never goes away. Everything else is up for manipulation."

The Anchorage Daily News visited several offices, mods and classrooms in Spring Creek in September to speak with prisoners and staff about what's different under Lapinskas' watch at a time when Alaskans are increasingly frustrated with crime and punishment.

Prisoners leading prisoners

Spring Creek is tucked in a mountain valley on the eastern head of Resurrection Bay. Its yard has some of the view that tourists come to see from its opposite shore. But as the state's only maximum-security prison, it has been the place where some of the most dangerous Alaskans have been held, Robert Hansen, Louis Hastings and Joshua Wade among them.

Lapinskas said stopping by the prison's security office can provide a good reminder of who he's working with. There, staff can show him the collection of shanks they've confiscated. On a cork board hang pictures of inmates grouped by gangs — some racist, some drug-addled, some violent. In January, Spring Creek correctional officers quelled a 43-inmate gang-related riot that injured five prisoners.

But Lapinskas said monitoring and identifying gangs has an upside that corrections officials have ignored. By identifying their leaders, he can engage them and, to some degree, call on them to tamp down disputes and violence before it boils. Security Sgt. Paul Wiest said it's not the pop-culture version of prison work that the public imagines.

"You treat them with respect, they'll treat you with respect 99 times out of 100. You just need to treat them like they have some worth," Wiest said. "And they're used to, a lot of these guys, being treated like they have no worth."

Historically, extending liberties hasn't always gone well. For many years, Lapinskas said, softball was a popular activity in the yard. That ended when a prisoner nearly beat another prisoner to death with the bat. Fights still occur a couple times a month, he said.

But of all the ideas Lapinskas has supported, none has seeded more change than the creation of the Restorative Justice Initiative, launched last year. Its 15 committee members, all prisoners, meet weekly to discuss ways inmates can help themselves.

"It was more about getting people engaged," said prisoner Matt Moore, one of the group's three co-chairs. "We come from a standpoint that the stagnation and idle time is probably the most harmful aspect of the prison experience."

Involved prisoners and Lapinskas say they encountered naysayers and suspicion in the initiative's early days. For prisoners, it helped to have men like Lamont Moore, a former gang member from Compton, California, bridging the divide.

"My credibility is good. I got all the stars and bars in that life," he said of his former affiliation. "So just because I'm coming over here trying to talk to the man, I'm just trying to work out something for us now. It's not just about me when I'm here."

The restorative justice project created peer-led classes in business, art and fitness. They're hoping to create a Yup'ik language class. Currently, RJI is advocating for elderly prisoners when the prison's policy doesn't account for their diminished capabilities. "Man, we're playing bingo," Lamont Moore said. "Nobody thought we'd be playing bingo at a maximum-security prison. Now, they're looking forward to it."

One initiative serves a mission close to Lapinskas' heart. It coordinates peer mentorship for prisoners working toward a GED. Lapinskas, who dropped out of East High School in Anchorage in the ninth grade, sometimes offers to show prisoners his own GED.

"That's all I got. I don't have any college, sitting here running an institution, $19 million budget, 160 employees," Lapinskas said.

The Restorative Justice Initiative also dangles a reward to encourage education: It raises money to buy a pizza or fried chicken dinner for anyone who earns a diploma. In a memo to the administration last month, RJI described the trajectory: In the fiscal year ending in July 2017, 22 men earned a GED. The following year, 55 did. In August 2018 alone, 17 GEDs were awarded, it said.

"It should be noted that the incentive program achieved these increases for around $500 worth of fried chicken from the Carrs deli," the memo said.

Leadership roles honed with restorative justice projects have contributed to other prisoner-led programs. Nine months ago, prisoner Brian Radel helped launch a sober living mod, where men trying to stay clean support and guide each other. They call the program Real Solutions. No other recovery service providers operate inside Spring Creek.

"I want to see them get their life together. Go out there and stay out," said Radel, the program's senior coordinator and a convicted murderer who said he might never get out of prison himself. He keeps recovery reference material in his tiny cell and writes workbooks the group uses.

Radel says he hopes it's possible a prisoner who leaves Spring Creek clean might be steered away from committing crimes that might result in a death.

"I won't know if that ever happens, but that's my hope, that I'll save a life since I took a life," he said.

Segregation and mental health

Correctional officer Rhianna Sherman, 23, prefers to work in segregation, also known as seg, or solitary confinement, or the hole. It's busier there than in other mods, she said, and she likes that.

"You get a little bit more interaction with them and a more personal sense," she said of the prisoners housed there. "It's kind of fun to hear their stories."

Sherman, who has worked in the job for two years, has only heard tales of what it was once like in seg, but some of those memories haunt Lapinskas from his days as a young correctional officer. He said he remembers once seeing a naked prisoner covered in his own feces, and being told by another C.O. that it was normal.

"No planet do I want to be on where that's the norm," he said.

Segregation remains a jarring sight. Inmates peer from tiny windows of their cell doors at any sign of activity in the mod. They stay in their cell about 23 hours a day, generally for one of two reasons: Either they've been deemed a threat to prison security, or it's for their own protection. Some prisoners who believe they're in danger request segregation, which the prison obliges.

Williams, the corrections commissioner, said he sees Lapinskas as a change agent in reducing the use of segregation. He sent Lapinskas to Colorado to study its recent drastic reductions.

"We have a long ways to go as a system, because we've lived with a high use of segregation for a very long time," Williams said.

Lapinskas said segregation stays were once commonly measured in months, sometimes years. The prisoner was often unaware of when it might end, he said. Now, most instances have a 30-day limit, less if a prisoner will work with staff and clinicians to address the problem.

Inmates requesting protective custody can be steered toward a mod reserved for that purpose that does not use solitary confinement. Also, one of the four mods inside the segregation house is now reserved for a two-week transitioning period for prisoners before they return to general population — a level-up opportunity with some restored social interaction that segregated prisoners can work toward.

But perhaps the largest difference in the use of segregation might be the strategies in place at Spring Creek to keep prisoners out of it, particularly in the mod reserved for mentally ill people.

"A few weeks ago we had a guy that had a big outburst," said Robert Pack, a correctional officer in the mental health mod. "It used to be that we got a lot of officers in here and we would escort him to segregation."

Instead, officers worked with peer mentors to de-escalate the situation. Two peer mentors live in the mental health mod to guide and protect mentally ill prisoners when trouble arises, as well as teach life skills and give day-to-day advice.

One is prisoner Kent Matte. He earns $1 an hour for up to 40 hours a week for his mentorship, he said.

"(It's) just being friends with the guys and treating them like normal people instead of, 'Oh, you're below me because you take medication.'

"This is a way to bridge that gap," Matte said. "Here, these guys are part of the community too."

Running with an idea

In 2015, correctional officer Justin Ennis, 38, wrote down a career goal on his annual evaluation. He wanted to start a running club for prisoners. His reviewer drew a line through it, he said, and called it unrealistic.

"It took a paradigm shift — him — to make that be real," Ennis said, motioning to Lapinskas.

Now, the club meets Saturdays and Mondays in the prison yard to run laps on the quarter-mile path. Lately, about 30 prisoners and staff have been participating. Ennis' only rule is that no one uses running club time to talk about prison life and work.

"They don't have to look at us as correctional officers. I don't look at them as prisoners for that one hour," Ennis said. "As corny as it sounds, because it does sound corny, we're just runners."

Opportunities to make his ideas real provide a boost in job satisfaction, he said. In September, he rode that high into a week he had scheduled to be off.

"I'd rather be here working than be on vacation right now. That really sums it up right there," said Ennis, a facility standards officer. "This is where I'm happy. We can effect change."

Five staff members came in on their off time to help in September when the club hosted its first endurance race. That Saturday afternoon, runners had two hours to complete as many laps as possible. Three men ran 14.25 miles, then faced off for one final lap to determine who would stand atop the wooden podium the club built for the occasion.

When it ended, 60 prisoners and staff members gathered at the finish line to cheer, Ennis said.

Ethics and morals

If the public is skeptical now about changes afoot at Spring Creek, prisoner Anthony Garcia thinks one day they're going to demand it. Alaskans would rather see decent human beings be returned from their prisons, he said. Though he'll live the rest of his own life in prison, he thinks he can help.

"I earned every year that I got, and I got a lot. I'm not asking nobody to feel sorry for me or nothing like that," said Garcia, who was convicted of murder. "But I've come to a certain point in time where I have something to teach the youngsters."

Every Friday morning Garcia leads a discussion about ethics and morals for any prisoner who wants to take part. Attendance is voluntary. Most weeks, the classroom is full.

Prisoner Jason Vukovich, convicted of assault and robbery, has been recording the discussions for use in a podcast he's developing. He credits Lapinskas, not only for providing the prisoners latitude, but for joining them each week.

"His words carry weight, because everybody in the room knows, man, the warden trusts us," Vukovich said.

Lapinskas recalls being derided as "soft" and "hug-a-thug" by colleagues. It used to anger him, he said. Now, Lapinskas said he's focused on explaining his goals to whomever will listen. He estimates that he gives 10 tours a month.

"People need to understand what this is, so when they start saying things like, 'Oh, we need to be tough on crime.' No, we need to be smart on crime," Lapinskas said. "Tough on crime is a 66 percent recidivism rate." That number refers to the percentage of people who return to prison for parole or probation violations, or new criminal charges, within three years of release, according to the Department of Corrections.

Ben Turnbull, a shift supervisor for correctional officers, said not all changes have not been universally well received by staff. To some, changes in segregation seems like less deterrent for bad behavior. But he believes acceptance is growing overall.

"The temperature on the yard, it's less tense in general," Turnbull said.

Commissioner Williams said he responds to a skeptical public by making two points: Making prison life hell does not reduce the re-offense rate, he said, and about 95 percent of prisoners are going to be released sooner or later. Spring Creek will release 130 in the next 12 months, Lapinskas said.

"I do care about making prison systems more humane," Williams said. "However, I am more concerned about making prisons that work."

Early one recent Friday morning, before joining Garcia's group to talk about how men should treat women, Lapinskas expressed hope that Spring Creek's direction would endure the pendulum swing of elected state leadership.

“I hope I challenge the status quo more than anybody else,” he said.

Marc Lester

Marc Lester is a multimedia journalist for Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at