Contrary to popular belief

Ex-convict Joe Contreras walks the straight and narrow after almost 28 years in jail, nine attempted escapes

Posted: Sunday, March 22, 2009

Juneau ex-convict Joe Contreras, 60, can talk endlessly about spending almost 28 years in prison and his nine attempted escapes, but his loquaciousness is no longer for bragging purposes. Today, it seems to reveal his desire for transparency and honesty with others about his transformation.

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Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

After 15 years of sobriety, Contreras says he has turned his life around.

"I'm through with that lifestyle," Contreras said. "I made some bad mistakes and hurt some people, but I'm going to do the best I can. Plus, I want to show people not to give up on people. I want the good people to see that a bad guy can change his life, and I want to give the guys who are still involved in the criminal lifestyle hope that they can change."

Originally from Whittier, Calif., Contreras was first arrested at age 17 for burglary. Since then, he spent much of his life in and out of jails, including Los Angeles County Jail (1967-76), San Quentin State Prison near San Rafael, Calif. (1978-80), Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau (1983-86), and Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward (1989-2004).

In the 10 years since his first arrest, Contreras' list of charges included possession, assaulting a police officer, burglary and robbery. He was arrested again after writing a forged check in 1978 and sent to San Quentin for two years.

After his release, he fled California but was arrested again for possession of 5 ounces of heroin and sent to Clark County Jail in Las Vegas, where he accomplished his first escape. Contreras then fled to California, where his father bought him a plane ticket to Anchorage.

"I chose Anchorage because it was the only place I could think of going that was the farthest away from California, and my sister lived there," Contreras said. "I could go there and at least she'd give me a start. ... I got off the plane and called her and said, 'Tina, I'm here,' and she goes, 'What'd you do wrong?'"

While in Anchorage, Contreras said nearly every day he would drink beer and whiskey and use drugs, including Quaaludes, marijuana and prescription drugs.

"I was in a stupor for about four months on the dope and drinking and all that, so I wasn't even thinking clearly," Contreras said. "When you're in that state of mind, you're not thinking rationally like I am today. ... Drugs will take everything away from you and give nothing back."

As a partial result of his drug use, Contreras committed one of his most egregious crimes in Anchorage in July 1980. He kidnapped two individuals, stole their car and sexually assaulted them.

"I just remember I pulled out a knife, and these people started doing everything I told them to do," Contreras said. "There was no plan. I was just walking behind the Midnight Express, and they happened to be there. ... I know I've done some really bad things, and I wish I could undo it."

Three weeks later, Contreras broke into his dope dealer's house, who, according to Contreras, took his money without providing drugs. Contreras' arrest in this incident led to his conviction of kidnapping, assault in the third degree and three counts of sexual assault in the first degree, for which he received a 45-year sentence.

"I'm very sorry for both of these (incidents)," Contreras said. "Because even if somebody rips you off, it doesn't give you an excuse to kidnap them or use violence to (get back at them). I shouldn't have been in that environment, buying and selling dope. ... It doesn't give you the excuse to go out and hurt other people."

After he was sentenced 45 years, Contreras made a secret resolution then and there.

"I went back to the cell, and I said, 'Man, I'm escaping every single time I can,'" he said. "And that's what I did. I probably needed some help, I probably had some mental problems, I probably needed some guidance, but they weren't offering that. They were just offering, 'Lock him up,' so I said, 'Man, if they make a mistake, I'm out of here.'"

And so began Contreras' extensive list of escapes. Of all nine, Contreras said his most memorable - and last - escape was from Lemon Creek Correctional Center on July 25, 1984.

According to a Juneau Empire article that same day, the breakout included Contreras and three other convicts: armed robber Roy Marshall, who had escaped four times prior; Rick Gottardi, who had escaped from a Ketchikan jail; and convicted robber David Springer.

"We weren't out on rec, we were in our cells," Contreras said of the escape. "We broke out of the cells into the hallway in front of the cells, and then we cut off the top bunk and stringed it with our sheets, tied knots in them and used them to carry it, and we batter-ramed the back two doors and knocked off these two solid steel doors."

The four escaped at 9:30 a.m., scaling a 12-foot fence topped with "razor ribbon" and fleeing up a small hill to the north of the jail. By 2 p.m., Marshall and Gottardi had been apprehended, but more than 40 law enforcement officers combed the hills behind the jail searching for Springer and Contreras, who said he was captured later that evening.

"I never did any more escapes after that," Contreras said. "But they kept me locked up everywhere I went after that until '89, when they opened up Spring Creek."

In Seward, Contreras met the catalyst for his turnaround - then-parole officer Kathy Caroll, now Kathy Matsumoto, former executive director of the Alaska Board of Parole.

"She was the one who told me I needed to straighten up my life and get on the right path if I ever wanted a chance to be free," Contreras said. "She gave me a little speech, so when I got out of the hole, I started that program because of the little speech Kathy Caroll gave me."

Contreras said Matsumoto's words "planted the seed" for his eventual rehabilitation and initial choice to become sober in 1994, when he was sent to solitary confinement again for having 2 grams of cocaine.

"When I came out of the hole, after that is when I started my rehab program," Contreras said. "Then I started doing the certificate programs and the little self-help programs."

Since then, Contreras said he has remained sober and has earned his GED and approximately 38 certificates. At Spring Creek, he participated in a year-long program under Virginia Wright and a two-year building maintenance course under Claude Higby. Contreras also completed a three-year residential substance abuse program at the Red Rock Correctional Center in Eloy, Ariz.

"It was the most difficult of all the programs," Contreras said of the three-year program. "But it was kind of a good experience, and I'm glad they had it. I wish they'd put more funding into stuff like that, and I was hoping they would start something like that in Juneau."

Contreras also attributes his change to becoming a Christian, which he said Ray Johnson introduced to him while he was incarcerated in Juneau.

"I think that God is love," Contreras said, "and we have to have that ingredient in us as human beings. God's love forgives from one time to 1,000 times, and we all want to hear that, that we'll get through the harder times with that love. Doesn't matter how many times I made mistakes, Jesus forgave me over and over. ... God gave me a lot of love while I was in prison, so I have to give that back. That's what motivates me."

After many years of good behavior, Contreras was released from prison at 3:10 p.m. on June 25, 2008. He is now a full-time student at the University of Alaska Southeast under a certificate program. Among other subjects, he's learning AutoCAD, a Computer Aided Design software application for 2D and 3D design and drafting, which he hopes to use to eventually get a desk job.

"I have a new respect for kids going to school," Contreras said. "It's a lot of hard work, but I'm hoping I'll be successful at it."

Margaret Pugh, the Lemon Creek superintendent at the time of Contreras' escape (1984-86), attended a Success Inside and Out program on March 14 at Lemon Creek where Contreras spoke. Knowing where Contreras has come from, Pugh said she is proud of the former inmate.

"(Saturday) was a great day out at Lemon Creek," she said. "Joe spoke very well and delivered a message of hope to the offenders who were present. I was very proud of him and proud of his personal accomplishments. I think his bearing last Saturday, when we met again, was completely different from that of the angry young man who I knew then."

The Success Inside and Out program is a volunteer-run organization under the auspices Superior Court Judge Patricia Collins. It brings representatives from community organizations and businesses into the jail to offer jobs or services to inmates who are close to release.

As a volunteer, Pugh is a strong advocate for the program, because it shows community support for the inmates who are seeking to do good.

"It lets the inmates know what's available in the community, what housing (there is) and how to connect with these people," Pugh said of the program. "It puts a face on it. You can write all this stuff down and give inmates a sheet of paper, but to put a face there so that inmates can have some dialogue with the very people they'll be dealing with when they get out builds confidence."

Like Contreras, Pugh also believes people can change.

"Contrary to popular opinion, many people do not re-offend," Pugh said. "Rehabilitation is very possible, and with proper treatment the institutions can help people with mental health issues and alcohol and drug addictions. So with the proper treatment and motivation, rehabilitation can be even more frequent."

Contreras is a living example of this. If you ask him today, he'll likely say he's a changed man and he regrets his past wrongdoings. He also hopes to make those who helped him along the way proud.

"It took a lot of years to instill the values back, but I want to be a better person for my community and myself," Contreras said. "I'm going to stay on this side of the tracks. I'm no different than you, if I see someone stealing a car, I'm calling the police. ... It really is a lot of work to try to be a good person, but I'm going to do my best."

• Contact Neighbors editor Kim Andree at 523-2272 or

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