A first drink of alcohol at 13. Three drunk driving arrests. Drug of choice: anything to avoid “right here, right now.” Using drugs and alcohol for acceptance. Incarcerated 1,742 times. Smoking pot and drinking alcohol at age seven. Using and selling drugs helped to fit in.
These were all snippets of stories told by five formerly incarcerated Juneau residents at the first community presentation by the Juneau Reentry Coalition on Nov. 14. JREC was formed in January to address the barriers and challenges of people reentering the community after incarceration, and to put faces on those who have struggled through imprisonment.
Kathryn Chapman, executive director of the Juneau branch of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, is at the helm of the coalition. Earlier this year, she reached out to social workers, mental health professionals, parole officers and former convicts — essentially anyone who might care about addressing the high recidivism rates in Alaska. Current trends show that two of three prisoners return to custody within the first three years of their release. JREC is trying to lower that number.
The meeting earlier this month served as one of the action items of the community education work group, one of seven workgroups established. Five formerly incarcerated people, one family member, probation supervisor Brent Wilson, Michele Federico of Gastineau Human Services and Chapman comprised the panel, presenting their stories and involvement with reentry. The purpose of the meeting was to reach out to the public, who were invited to attend in an attempt to dull a divisive line between “us” and “them.”
Around 40 people attended JREC’s first meeting in January. The coalition established a mission: “Promote public safety by identifying and implementing strategies that increase a former prisoner’s well-being within the community and reduces the likelihood of their return to prison through recidivating.”
The coalition has work groups on behavioral health; employment, education and training; family support; housing; peer support; pre/post release; and community education.
At the end of a five-minute story from each of the panelists, they all had a chance to ask the community for something they believed would help others who were in their position. Support was the unanimous request.
One panelist explained that she’s recently completed six years of probation, something she would not have been able to do without good friends, support from her family, counselors and parole officers.
Another panelist made the case for better access to help.
“People can make good choices if they have the chance,” said one member of the panel. “You don’t have much to lose by offering choices. I would ask you support however you can.”
Another panelist urged residents to call their representatives and ask for increased funding for reentry programs.
The State of Alaska doesn’t directly fund such programs, but it does provide some funding in the form of grants. As the last legislative session started, that pot of grant money was around $23 million. During the 2014 session, a cut of one third of that budget was proposed. The budget ended up being reduced by $2 million.
According to the panel, cutting funding to services that may be more effective in reducing the prison population doesn’t make sense. The estimated cost of providing daily treatment services is $79, compared to $147 for a prison bed.
“The biggest thing that impacted these people tonight was having someone that cared: an employer, mentor, that’s all of you,” Chapman said. “That’s our community.”
Around 290 men and women are released from prison into Alaska communities each month, she said.
“These are people who live next door to us, shop with us, plow our parking lots, work in our grocery stores — if they are lucky enough to get employment,” she said. “They are our children, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers.”
She explained that the coalition is trying to address the belief that there are clear lines between those who are struggling and those who aren’t.
“We comprise the same community,” she said. “Some of us are in better positions to assist.”
JREC plans to have more public forum meetings at various venues in Juneau.