ANCHORAGE — Each year more than a thousand inmates who have served their sentences are released in Anchorage, often in the parking lot of the city jail. Many go straight to a homeless shelter.
Almost half will be jailed for committing a new crime within three years, according to a 2011 Pew Center for the States report. That’s the highest rate in the nation.
Now Anchorage, where more felons are released than any other place in Alaska, has its first walk-in “re-entry” center, just a few blocks from the jail. The coalition of nonprofits behind the center hopes it will keep more people from going back to jail
At the Partners Reentry Center, located in a modest, white, one-story building at 419 Barrow Street, newly-released inmates can get help with immediate needs like bus passes and warm clothes, as well as housing, substance abuse counseling and employment. The center celebrates a public opening Thursday but has been serving clients for a few months.
“We do the best we can so that people do not end up in homeless shelters or the streets,” said Partners Reentry Center program director Randy Wilson.
Some inmates leave jail with nothing, said David Vought II, who served time for a felony DUI conviction and received help once he was released from Alaska Native Justice Center, one of the nonprofits involved with the Reentry Center.
“People leave with orange prison slippers on,” he said. “They have no clothing or anything.”
The Alaska Native Justice Center found that more than twice as many felons were released in Anchorage than other cities, due to probation requirements that often must be fulfilled in the city. Felons in Anchorage also had the highest rates of being rearrested and convicted of a new crime.
The center is part of a broader effort by nonprofits and the state Department of Corrections to reduce Alaska’s high rate of criminal recidivism.
The Department of Corrections’ former head of parole and probation is now the “deputy commissioner for prisoner re-entry and programming.”
That’s not just lip service, said Cathleen McLaughlin, a board member of the Alaska Native Justice Center, one of the agencies involved in the new center: There’s a growing awareness of the costs, both human and fiscal, of an endless cycle of incarceration and release.
“(Recidivism) is hugely costly in terms of human lives, families and employees but also in terms of the state budget,” she said.
The center is funded by a $1.8 million legislative grant plus contributions from the partner nonprofits, Partners for Progress, Nine Star Education and Employment Services, the Alaska Native Justice Center and Volunteers for America.
Inside, there are Norman Rockwell posters on white walls and a computer lab where a handful of people applied for jobs and perused Craigslist on a recent day.
A probation officer with the State of Alaska will eventually have an office on-site. The re-entry center can offer case management services for about 90 people at a time, said Janet McCabe, a board member of Partners for Progress. While people can drop-in (they have to be sober and agree to a breathalyzer test if that’s in question, Wilson said) the main effort will be to identify those who need the help while they are still in prison. That’s to avoid people being released into homeless shelters.
David Vought II is the best-case scenario for what life after prison can be like with some assistance to get started.
The 28-year-old served 18 months for felony DUI at the Palmer Correctional Center.
He got bus passes, warm clothes and a sober support group from the Alaska Native Justice Center when he got out.
“If it weren’t for this program I would just be back on the street, basically,” he said.
Now he’s in a sober living program and working as a laborer, he said.
He’ll start a training program to become a welder in December.