Community reaches out to prisoners

Posted: Sunday, February 24, 2008

John Kobbe has been out of prison for nearly two years, the longest stretch of freedom he's known in 23 years.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

He told a group of about 50 inmates Saturday at the Lemon Creek Correctional Center that his life used to be about drugs. As soon as he got out of prison, he said, he'd go looking for drugs; not long after he found them, he'd be back behind bars.

The temptations are still there, Kobbe said, but so is a fear of returning back to his old life.

"I really miss going out and having a good time," Kobbe said. "And then I come here and I don't see anyone having a really good time."

Kobbe now is a manager with a company that makes school lunches. He has an apartment with a TV, something he said he would have sold in the past to buy drugs.

Success stories like Kobbe's are too rare in Alaska, some community activists and state officials said Saturday, and it is why they held a conference at the prison to give inmates advice on how to readjust to life on the outside.

Titled Success Inside and Out: Starting the Good Life, community volunteers led discussions with inmates on everything from how to write a resume to how to get involved with Juneau's art scene.

Willie Roundtree said he appreciated the chance to talk to employers while still in prison.

"I've never had a job (outside of prison) in my life," the 43-year-old said. "I'm kind of lost, I don't know which way to go."

There was also a fashion show at lunch where Juneau's lone senator, Democrat Kim Elton, wore baggy clothes as a model of what not to wear to a job interview.

Andrew Hughes was also a model. The 41-year-old wore a pair of slacks and a collared shirt for his jaunt down a makeshift runway in the prison's gymnasium. He said the outfit was a nice break from the yellow pants and shirt with "PRISONER" ironed on the back he's worn for the last nine months.

"It feels good," Hughes said.

Like Kobbe, drugs are the reason why Hughes is in prison. He's been in and out for the last 13 years, he said, and is currently serving time for failing a drug test while on parole.

He said he won't have a hard time finding a job when he gets out. Like many inmates, he said it's easy to find work in Juneau even with a record, but it will be hard to stay clean.

"The concern I have is old friends," Hughes said, adding that there had been no drug treatment opportunities available at the Lemon Creek Correctional Center.

The prison's superintendent, Scott Wellard, said there were drug treatment programs at the prison, and volunteer counselors came regularly to help. But he also said his budget for rehabilitation programs was stretched thin, and he's seen a cut in state funding for such programs during the past few years.

Elton said it was good public policy to fund rehabilitation programs and slow what he called "the revolving door" in Alaska's prisons. But he said inmates weren't the most sympathetic of constituents and lawmakers often failed to see past that.

"Doing something that helps criminals is sometimes not as popular as doing something that helps voters," Elton said.

For his part, Kobbe said he was pleased to see the community take an interest in helping the inmates but wondered how long the effort would last.

He also told the inmates to take advantage of the chances they were being given.

"If you leave what you learn at the door, you're coming right back to the door to pick it up," Kobbe said. "You gotta take what you learn with you and use it."

• Contact reporter Alan Sudermanat 523-2268 or e-mail

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