For inmate Tabetha Taylor, 21, who gets out of jail on Valentine’s Day next year, being on the outside means a chance to continue her education and embark on a career in hotel/restaurant management.
“I want to see what my options are,” she said, while at the education table at the fourth annual “Succes Inside & Out” at Lemon Creek Correctional Center, noting she’s applied to the Penn Foster Career School.
Taylor was one of 60 or so inmates at LCCC who participated in the one-day program on Saturday, which aims to help inmates prepare for life outside of prison.
They face daunting odds. A recent study by the Alaska Judicial Council, which Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Walter Carpeneti cited in his State of the Judiciary speech to the legislature earlier this week, found that most criminal recidivism occurred within one year after returning to the community.
Within six months, 17 percent of felons were re-arrested. One year, 27 percent. Two years, 39 percent.
For those convicted of a misdemeanor the numbers were worse. Nearly a quarter were re-arrested within six months, and 37 percent were re-arrested within one year. Within two years, 48 percent re-offended.
Remands to custody, as opposed to a new conviction, were the most frequent form of recidivism for felons during the first year, the study found.
Within six months, 20 percent of felons were remanded; one year, 36 percent.
Within six months, 21 percent of misdemeanants were remanded into custody at least once; one year, 34 percent.
The study examined data collected in 2008 and 2009.
It’s a story Taylor says she knows well. She was convicted of a felony in 2010 after she was caught selling pills to a paid informant and has had two probation/parole violations since.
“I served eight months, got out for a month and a half, then came back, and then I served two more months,” she said. “Now I’m back and have to serve 14 months.”
The back and forth has motivated her, though. She says she’s more determined to stay out of lock up.
“I’ve been through it, so now I know,” she said. “You can’t fight it because you’ll never win.”
Sam G. Williams Jr., 38, who has spent a collective 21 years behind bars and was on MSNBC’s “Lockup” prison documentary series, echoed the sentiment.
“After 21 years, I’m tired. Just tired. I’m almost 40 years old. This could be my life for the rest of my life, or I could do something else,” he said.
Williams is scheduled to get out in June of next year, but he says he could get out as early as next week if his case is appealed. He’s serving eight years for felony escape for leaving a halfway home, and he had an array of prior convictions, including three felony driving under the influence convictions, theft and assault.
He wants to attend the University of Phoenix online to obtain a human services degree so he can go on to help people in similar situations.
“I have enough life experience that I can give back,” he said. “I feel the best people who do jobs like that are people that come from it.”
The volunteers who organize the Succes Inside & Out conference hope they can help stop the proverbial revolving door by giving inmates tools that can help them succeed outside prison walls. Each of prisoners sat down with volunteers from the business, art, legal, religious and social services sectors of Juneau to discuss job contacts; addiction, treatment and mental health options; housing, food and medical services; legal and banking services; spiritual guidance; healthy relationship tips on reconnecting with family; and tips for surviving probation and electronic monitoring.
“My hope is that this is their last time for this program,” said Juneau District Court Judge Keith Levy, who was the moderator for the event and is on the steering committee. “If they get anything out of this, it’s that they should know that, one, that there are a ton of people in this community that really do care and are willing to give their time and energy to see them succeed, and two, that there are all these resources that they can take advantage of.”
For inspiration, four former inmates spoke to the crowd on how to cope with the hardships of the real world, especially addiction.
“There’s going to be temptation, there’s going to be peer pressure, there’s going to be frustration. And it’s hard. But you take it one day at a time,” said Elizabeth Leonardson, who served time for felony DUI.
Leonardson said at first she tried to fool her probation officer, but then ended up relying on them whenever she was struggling with recovery or when problems arose. Why, she asked rhetorically?
“Because I don’t want to go back to jail. When I was in jail I didn’t like not having forks, I didn’t like people watch me go to the bathroom, I didn’t like not seeing the sun, and I didn’t like my recreation time sleeping out on concrete. So those are just some things I don’t want to repeat in my experience in my life.”
She said one thing that helped her was to continually ask herself, “Does what I’m about to do or say jeopardize my freedom, or does what I’m about to do or say jeopardize my recovery. If the answer is yes or maybe, then don’t do it.”
Another former prisoner said the hardest moment for him was when his 26-year-old son was killed about six months ago.
“Did I want to get high? Every day. That’s what I’m used to doing. When I don’t want to feel pain, I get high. But you know, I didn’t get high, and I was able to come in here and speak and tell my story about what I’m doing different,” he said.
He added, “Your past does not dictate your future. We’ve made some bad choices, and even though I’m clean, I still make bad choices — I’m not good with saving money,” he said, eliciting chuckles. “So yeah, I still make bad choices, but I’m not making the choices that lead me back here.”
When asked if Succes Inside & Out have been successful in years past, Lemon Creek Superintendent Scott Wellard said it was difficult to measure.
“But the way I look at it is, if it helps one person, it’s worth every bit of money we put in,” he said.
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.