Joseph Contreras stood before 56 inmates at Juneau's Lemon Creek Correctional Institute Center Saturday as a guest speaker during the 3rd annual Success Inside and Out conference, a pre-release meeting for the men and women incarcerated there.
He was one of three former inmates who volunteered to speak.
"That is my last roommate," Contreras said, pointing at inmate Anthony Chuitt. "(But) you haven't been out. The difference is that I stopped. But now you, all of you have this opportunity. It's kibbles and bits, there's a little program here and a little program there, you have to grab as many of them as you can."
Contreras served nearly three decades behind bars, a total of 28 years. Nine of those were in solitary confinement. He has spent time in California's L.A. County, San Quinton and Chino prisons. He's been in Red Rock, Arizona and Alaska prisons. Placed on discretionary parole in June 2008, he is currently attending classes at the University of Alaska Southeast in the Autocad program and adjusting to life "on the outside."
"It's rewarding," Chuitt said of the speakers. "It makes me feel happy that he is doing good and we have hope and people in Juneau care about us. I'm scared that I might not complete parole or probation. I have an alcohol problem, but I have hope."
Chuitt, to be released Aug. 2011, was incarcerated for a felony DUI and kidnapping his own child.
To be able to participate in the "Success" program inmates have to be within 18 months of release.
"I am going to be out in 11 days," inmate Alexandra Pittman said. "I am in here for possession of drugs. My plans are to get involved in volleyball, do treatment at Rainforest, get my job back ... I am excited by the support here."
For Miranda Wilburn, in for only three months on drug possession and currently unsentenced, the speakers struck a chord.
"I could be getting up to 10 years," Wilburn said. "It is very scary. I am anxious, nervous ... I don't want to be like them."
"This is really a big community effort," Juneau Superior Court Judge Patricia Collins, a member of the Success Inside and Out Steering Committee, said. "Lots of folks from every walk of life have come in to help out."
Inmates were rotated in groups to various adjustment panels concerning life outside prison including: Addiction treatment and mental health options, personal finances, credit and budget counseling, succeeding in the community and exploring life's necessities for housing, transportation, and food - to name a few.
Over 60 members from various professions led the groups. Lunch was donated by local eateries and a mock fashion show allowed inmates to see proper attire for job interviews.
"To welcome them back into the community as someone that matters is important," Scott Wellard, LCCC superintendent, said. "And just as important is all the people who are willing to take part in this, the businesses, the community. It just shows how much Juneau cares about their fellow man."
Department of Corrections Commissioner Joe Schmidt also spoke to the inmates.
"Ninety-five percent of our prison population walks out of here as ex-cons," Schmidt said. "But you have other names. When the business community comes in here like this to support you, it is offering a hand up. I think that really means something and I hope that means something to you. Take advantage of this opportunity."
Historically, over two-thirds of Alaska's inmates released will come back to jail and 38,000 individuals are booked into prison each year.
"What is unique about Lemon Creek is that we are a pretrial facility," Wellard said. "And we are a program facility, we are one of two maximum security prisons in the state. This prison does almost everything you can think of in terms of housing inmates."
Lemon Creek has started a sex offender program and a substance abuse program, which have both been in operation for almost a year. The facility houses offenders ranging from first-timers to felons who may never be released.
"I was born and raised in Juneau," Corrections Officer Randy Parker said. "So inevitably I know a lot of the inmates who come in here. This is no cake walk here. It's difficult. A lot of these people are my friends, or acquaintances, it is hard to see them return."
Contact reporter Klas Stolpe at email@example.com.