My Turn: Kill House Bill 9, not other humans

Posted: Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Besides political posturing, what would lead any legislator to sponsor a bill reinstating the death penalty in Alaska? Reps. Mike Chenault and Jay Ramras have put forward a bill to do just that.

I consider it an enlightened move when Alaska abolished the death penalty. Why any legislator would choose to reverse this action five decades afterward is not rational. The death penalty is not a deterrent, is not financially responsible and, I believe, is morally reprehensible.

I want to describe some of my own experience relating to the state prison system. In 1985, I wrote a grant proposal and developed the Substance Abuse Treatment Program at Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau. I facilitated the education classes and conducted both individual and group therapy sessions for inmates in this maximum security prison. At that time, Lemon Creek was the only facility in the state for those convicted of the most serious and violent crimes: rape, assault, armed robbery and murder.

Sometimes I felt uneasy leading a group in a distant room near the gymnasium, with no staff oversight or ability to call for help. But I was never threatened and actually had more hostility and obstructive behavior directed at me from guards who believed that prisons were for punishment only. They resented and interfered with college teachers, counselors and even chaplains. The idea of rehabilitation was generally scorned. I was disturbed by this attitude.

Also disturbing was the disproportionate number of Alaska Native inmates. Though the population statewide was about 17 percent, it was about 40 percent at this penal institution. I heard many devastating personal stories, especially from people from the more remote villages.

One young man, 24, told of being responsible for the care of his six brothers and sisters - at the age of 12. His father had died in a snowmobile accident while under the influence and his mother was an alcoholic and wasn't at home for the children. He scrounged for food.

Another man described his inability to attend school because of the demands and the beatings by both his mother and father, who drank excessively and fought all the time. Alcohol seemed to have played a part in most of the offenses committed.

Some inmates in my program had sentences so long they had no anticipation of being released within their lifetime. This prison was so far away from their home villages and family that they never had visitors either. If inmates are deemed too dangerous to return to the "street," a life sentence without parole would certainly protect the public.

At any rate, the Substance Abuse Treatment Program seemed to offer them a welcomed break in an otherwise dismal routine and they were active participants. Work in the kitchen, an opportunity to make furniture for the state or grow plants was earned by a lucky few.

As a family counselor, I have worked with residents from halfway houses, co-led men's anger management groups, in-patient and out-patient substance abuse clients, counseled both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence, and young people who have dropped out or run away from dysfunctional family systems. There is a great unmet need for additional funding for educational and social services, for both preventive programs and rehabilitation programs.

Alaska should fund more in-state facilities and programs. The money it would cost to reinstate the death penalty could instead be used to construct new buildings, staff and train additional correctional officers and establish more public defenders. This would be a more effective community health and safety expenditure of public funds.

Urge our legislators to kill House Bill 9 - not human beings.

• Dixie Hood is a resident of Juneau and a licensed marriage and family therapist.

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