Inmates hope for success outside after time inside

Posted: Monday, March 07, 2011

Tom Booth hears the basketball bounce — like heartbeat or an ancestral drum. He tugs at his uniform while sitting court side Saturday under a chipped white backboard with a broken rim attached.

Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire

Eighty-four feet away has always been his world. A hoop at the end of a court has been part of his most productive times.

But Booth, 35, is not wearing a basketball uniform and is not on the court to play hoops today. Instead he is wearing standard Lemon Creek Correctional Center felony orange. Booth and more than 50 other prisoners gathered in the LCCC gymnasium to listen and speak to local members of the community who have volunteered their time to speak and listen in return as part of Success Inside And Out, a professional pre-release conference for incarcerated men and women.

“I am nervous about being reacquainted with my family,” Booth said. “I made bad choices when I was drinking, I wasn’t living my life right.”

Booth’s three year sentence for assault and domestic violence are just a slim five months away, as is his 13-year-old son, who just started playing basketball.

“I have valuable gifts I can give to my family but I made these bad choices,” Booth said. “I can show my son a move or two. I have nieces and nephews who I want to teach my culture.”

Booth was an all-conference player for the Metlakatla Chiefs his sophomore and senior seasons. He was ineligible his freshman and junior campaigns due to grades and alcohol. When he graduated in 1993 he had a full academic scholarship to the University of Alaska Fairbanks, but chose to drink instead of study. He has been in the court system since 1994.

“15 years is too long to be playing this game,” Booth said, then laughed as he realized his gesture took in the playing floor. “I fear not being able to stay away from the parties. I fear destroying everything I have to look forward to, destroying all with my family. My relationship with my son is so fresh, I don’t want to lose it before it starts.”

His son, Zavier, visits grandpa Thomas Sr. but hasn’t talked to Booth.

“My son visits the man who has been dealing with my stupidity for 35 years,” Booth said. “This has to be the last time. It felt like my lowest point, I thought my life was over. Now, I want to rebuild my life.”

Booth, who is Tsimshian and Eagle clan through his mother, has been able to flourish with his cultural talents in carving while incarcerated, He sends them to Zavier, who is of the Wolf clan.

“There is a wood shop here,” Booth said. “I have always been a good carver.”

Booth has studied under famed Tsimshian carver Jack Hudson and has crafted along side Tlingit Nathan Jackson, working a Tsimshian pole while Jackson molded a yellow cedar.

Booth is able to send his circle plaques and other art works to his father in Metlakatla who sells them. This income has allowed Booth to take care of family and provide a small nest egg when he gets out.

His son will be starting middle school, the same age that Booth first got caught drinking alcohol by his own dad.

“It drives me nuts,” Booth said. “I can talk about my problems with a smile, but it kills me to not be there for him.”

Inside the system Booth has learned to play guitar and sing gospel, “They don’t sound like the best church songs but I try.”

An uncle has taught him to be a song leader and he has a recovery program sponsor.

But Booth has always had family. Four Booths were on his high school team and two Heyward cousins.

“My grandma had over 20 children,” Booth said proudly. “She hung name tags on the door for all the aunts and uncles.”

Booth said he thinks often of grandma Violet Booth, who passed in 1996, and dedicates his life to her and those she brought into the world.

“After all the fun and excitement your family is there to pick you up,” Booth said. “Mine have picked me up numerous times. Now I will pick myself up too.”

Booth is vice president of the Multicultural Club at LCCC. He runs the sweat lodge and gives Native spiritual ceremonies, and just finished organizing a Black Heritage Awareness Month.

“These are my teammates now,” Booth said, his arms sweeping out to encompass the mass of humanity gathered to hear the program of SIAO. “They have fears too.”

Ida Sheakley, 23, is in for violating probation stemming from an alcohol induced stabbing in 2007. She fears she can’t stay clean and sober, but has learned there are people she can contact for help.

Thomas Leigh-Kendall, 40, is in for weapons and burglary as he tried to support his intravenous drug use and life-long crime.

“Heroin, meth, everything,” Leigh-Kendall said. “Drug addiction. I get out with enough money to get by, but then rent is due and I don’t have a job, and being a criminal and knowing the criminal environment I can get what I need. I fear I can’t break that, that I can’t get a job because I am a felon.”

Salesi Fifita, is in for strong-arm robbery of a drug dealer to feed his habit. He has worked to get his GED inside and wants to pursue bodybuilding while working in the fitness industry and spending time with his four-year-old daughter.

“She is the major factor in my life, I want to give her what I never could before,” Fifita said. “I fear that I will run into old friends. Another fear is I will run into people I victimized and have them fear that I am the old person I was. That person is gone.”

Meaghan Coyle fears the condemnation of a small town and getting caught up in the cycle of friends that do drugs. She fears being a felon without as many opportunities, of being looked at differently.

“But today has helped a lot,” Coyle said of the Success program. “Hearing what is available from all these people and their support.”

Drew Carey is in for burglary and fears he won’t get back the trust of family and community as he tries to stay away from the small-town old friends and make new ones.

Gregory Kozeroff is incarcerated for sexual abuse of a minor as an addiction of drugs and alcohol spun out of control, and states that his biggest fear is not knowing how to live a new life.

“Not knowing how to get my needs and goals,” Kozeroff said. “The things I need for a stable life that doesn’t make me a burden on society. I want to learn to contribute. I fear I may not be able to connect and govern my own life. Today has been helpful though.”

Curtiss Mann is in for sexual assault of a minor and fears he may lose the life of subsistence in his Bering Sea coastal town if he re-offends and can’t beat alcohol.

“I am in the sex offender treatment programs here,” Mann said as he painted in a Success art class sponsored by the Canvas’ Christy Eriksen and Perseverance Theatre’s Shona Strauser. “I am learning how to avoid and recognize the problems that will confront me when I do get out.”

Former inmate Dale Morrison, one of Saturday’s SIAO guest speakers, stated that his biggest fear the first time was where he would score his dope. Other speakers were Joseph Contreras, Cory Stephens, Dallas Breaux, JoAnn Lockwood, and John Kobbe,

“When I did get out for good, I had been in so long that the sound of cars was kind of scary,” Morrison said. “You have to find new people to hang with and not get dragged back in to that old circle. I didn’t go back to my hometown and negative influences. I wanted to stay in Juneau and now I have a new life and a great job.”

Breaux woke up from her third felony DUI in jail not remembering anything that happened. Lockwood lost custody of her children to a fourth DUI.

Chief Justice of the Alaska Supreme Court Walter Carpeneti addressed the inmates saying, “There is no event more important to the state than your success.”

The group also heard from LCCC Superintendent Scott Wellar. “I am speaking from my heart and my heart tells me what a wonderful community we live in and who want to be involved in your success,” he said.

Tom Booth pointed to a black tattoo-like line winding its way among the inmates and community members gathered on the gymnasium floor. It marks the area where a player is awarded three points instead of two for a made basket in prison games.

“Ask anyone in here,” Booth laughed. “I can shoot the three now and I can still dunk. Next year Gold Medal better look out. In five months, on Aug 5, 2011, I am going to be the man I am supposed to be outside. My heart will beat like the drum I will carve, it will be a pure sound like a basketball.”

• Contact Klas Stolpe at 523-2263 or at

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