Lemon Creek Correctional Center inmate William Branlund is trying to put a history of substance abuse behind him and take a new path.
To express his change of heart, Branlund created 60 plaques in the shape of hearts topped with crosses, the red hearts bearing the words in gold, "May the passion of Christ be in our hearts." He was inspired to do this, he said, after seeing an Empire article about a proposal to remove the city's senior citizen sales tax exemption, a plan that was not put into place.
"In this society, senior citizens are often overlooked," Branlund said Monday. "Making the plaques was my 'good deed' to counter what I thought was an injustice."
In June, he donated the plaques to the Juneau Pioneers' Home. "I hoped it would make a few wonderful people smile," he said.
Tom Barnett, food services director for the Pioneers' Home, took the plaques to the home and made them available to residents.
"It was exceptional for an inmate to do this. It wasn't the norm by any means, but it was a beautiful gesture," Barnett said.
Branlund, 52, has been in prison for 15 months, awaiting sentence on charges of second- and third-degree assault for "taking after someone with a tire iron." He faces a sentence of three to six years because he has a previous record of drug possession.
Branlund said he left an abusive home in California at age 12 and became a migrant farm worker with a sixth-grade education. During his months behind bars, he has earned his GED and decided he wants to set an example for his 5-year-old son, who lives in Sitka. "I don't think it's too late" to be a good father, he said.
He credits his change of attitude to "coming across some really fine people." Those people include Mike Rowcroft of Juneau Recovery Hospital and Anita Brashear, an anger management counselor with Tongass Community Counseling Center.
"This is the first time I ever put trust in people. They told me the stories of their lives, and it had an impact with me and helped me stay with the program here," Branlund said.
After being at loose ends for much of his life, Branlund has a goal: To attend the University of Alaska Southeast and become a substance abuse counselor. "Now that I have disabled veterans' education benefits, I can hopefully help some other vets," he said.
"I was a 17-year-old kid when I went into the service. I spent three years (1967-70) as a Green Beret. I was wounded several times and put on morphine; that's how I got addicted (to drugs)."
It took Branlund three months to create the plaques. "It was a real challenge because I never made anything before in my life. But making things seems to fill a void. I would rather be carving than sucking on a beer."
Prison Chaplain Mick Ewing said Branlund has not tried to profit from his work and has even bought some equipment for the shop.
"His first project was a communion service for the chapel," Ewing said. "I thought that was noble."
Ann Chandonnet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.