Nothing to lose, everything to gain

My turn

Posted: Wednesday, March 07, 2001

Byron Mallot, in a recent Anchorage Daily News article, bluntly condemned acts of violence against Alaska Natives and the failure of state policy makers to look directly into the face of racism in Alaska. It seems most Alaska Natives have patiently trusted that equal distribution of justice and resources would eventually find its way to the Native community. Finally, in the shadow of violence, the sleeping giant of self-determination appears to be waking.

Frozen paint balls of bias first burst in the face of the Kenai Natives Association last summer, when the skeleton of inequality tumbled from a closet in the state justice system. Rick Segura, president and CEO of the KNA, was exploring business opportunities for his small Native corporation, when he discovered that only 7 percent of Alaska's general population are Native males, but 37 percent of Alaska's prison population are Native men. A few phone calls later, Rick learned that over 300 Alaska Natives are imprisoned in the desert of Arizona, far from the cultural and behavioral support systems necessary for rehabilitation; victims of a stop gap measure to relieve in-state prison overcrowding, now inexcusably in its seventh year.

While these men have committed serious crimes, Rick found that few Alaska Native prisoners fit conventional patterns of criminal behavior and most do not respond to conventional correctional programs. His research confirmed what Rick had always suspected: except for the ravage of alcohol, most Native prisoners would have led and can, again, lead productive lives.

How tragic to commit a violent crime, harbor little or no recollection of the event, and live in exile with only pain and remorse as your cellmates.

Rick doesn't excuse his brothers' behavior, but he is concerned that the state seems ill equipped or unable to break the cycle of destruction. The Alaska Judicial Council and University of Alaska Justice Center have repeatedly reported on cultural bias in our judicial system. Yet, simply put, we Alaskans continue to incarcerate more of our indigenous neighbors, per capita, than any other state, by overwhelming margins.

The Kenai Natives Association cannot fix the State justice system, but their Board of Directors has decided that they can, and must, commit their limited resources to reducing recidivism among Alaska Natives.

This month the Kenai Natives Association teamed with the Kenai Peninsula Borough to offer the state an alternative to out-of-state incarceration. The borough intends to sell bonds to finance a privately built and operated prison on Kenai Natives Association land adjacent to the existing, state-operated, Wildwood Correctional Center. The prison will be built to the highest standards of the industry and meet, or exceed, the security standards of the State Department of Corrections. But beyond the conventional programs offered by the state, KNA's vision is to offer the Native Alaska community the opportunity to take responsibility for programs designed to target and eliminate the revolving door of Native incarceration.

The economic benefits for all Alaskans are many: local consumption of materials, goods and services associated with a major construction project; over 300 prevailing wage construction jobs; roughly 250 permanent prison jobs; and over $20 million annually spent in Alaska, rather than Arizona.

The social benefits for all Alaskans are even more compelling: empowering Alaska Natives as stakeholders in the healing of their fathers, sons and brothers, as well as returning all Alaska offenders imprisoned in Arizona nearer to the support systems necessary to effect life changing behavior.

On Dec. 19, 2000, the Board of Directors of the Alaska Federation of Natives passed a resolution which states, in part: "The AFN Board of Directors does fully endorse and support the Kenai Natives Association Inc. in the development of their private prison project."

As neighbors, we can all take a small step toward reconciliation by supporting the Kenai Natives Association. As a society, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain by seeking new solutions to old problems. Please express your support by contacting Gov. Knowles and your state representatives.

Frank Prewitt is an Anchorage attorney and former Commissioner of the Department of Corrections under Walter J. Hickel. He consults for Cornell Corrections and the Kenai Natives Association.

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