What happens to people on the peninsula after they’ve served their time in prison and are released back into the community? A group of nonprofits and government agencies are working together to provide the community a clearer answer to that question.
On Thursday at the Kenai Peninsula College, a community panel hosted by the Kenai Peninsula Reentry Coalition brought together representatives from a number of agencies that work with those recently released from prison to discuss restorative reentry and share what challenges and obstacles exist for people attempting to reintegrate into society.
Fred Koski from the Reentry Coalition moderated the event, which included Katie Cowgill, vice president of the Reentry Coalition; Jodi Stuart, probation and parole officer for the Department of Corrections; Allison Bushnell, housing and intake clerk for Love, INC; Cheri Smith, executive director for the LeeShore Center; Shari Conner and Audrey Hickey, both representing Change 4 the Kenai and Jessie Schultz, executive assistant for the Central Area Rural Transit System (CARTS.)
The discussion involved prepared questions asked by Koski as well as questions from the audience. To start, Koski asked Stuart to clarify the difference between people being released from Wildwood Correctional Complex’s pretrial facility versus those released from the sentenced facility. Stuart explained that the pretrial facility’s population is much more “in-and-out,” and people being housed in the pretrial facility, for the most part, are released on bail or supervision in the time between being charged with the crime and being found guilty and receiving a prison sentence. Those people being housed and released in the pretrial facility have far fewer services available to them than those being released after a prison sentence, Stuart said.
“Because of that quick in-and-out, it’s really hard to get programming,” Stuart said. “They can’t get substance abuse treatment because that takes a while, they can’t get mental health treatment or group (therapy) because that takes a while.”
Stuart said that people in the pretrial facility are evaluated by a psychiatrist to determine what services are needed, but more often they don’t receive any services until they’re actually sentenced.
Once sentenced, Stuart said, inmates do have resources available to them and DOC will determine a plan that addresses their needs while they serve their time. One of the problems with this system, Stuart said, is that gap in time between going through the pretrial facility, being released on bail and later being sentenced. People can go months or even years without receiving their day in court, Stuart said.
Ninety days prior to an inmate’s release from the sentenced facility, an institutional probation officer like Stuart will begin determining where that person will be staying, what housing options are available, how to transition to further substance abuse treatment if necessary and other similar issues.
An inmate who has served more than two years is also assigned a field probation officer to monitor them for a specified period of time after release, while those who have served less than two years are typically released unsupervised, Stuart said.
“If they have no support, if they have nothing other than the shoes on their feet and, if they’re lucky, the clothes on their back, they come to our office for supervision and then we start the process of trying to find them a place to live,” Stuart said.
No such plan is in place for any inmates being released from the pretrial facility, which Stuart said happens daily and at any time of the day.
Smith said that one of the challenges the LeeShore Center faces stems from the revolving-door nature of the pretrial facility. The LeeShore Center provides services for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, and when someone charged with domestic violence but not yet sentenced is released back into the community, it can pose a threat to the victim.
“If the case is pled down to harassment or something like that, that offender can be out very quickly,” Smith said. “Which poses a lot of safety issues for the victims.”
Another problem that can arise when dealing with crimes of sexual assault or domestic violence, Smith said, is seen on the other side, with those who have been sentenced to serve time. The LeeShore Center offers a 48-week Batterer’s Intervention Program that people can opt into as an alternative to prison time in some instances. Smith said that if a convicted offender’s probation ends prior to the completion of the Batterer’s Intervention Program, that person is no longer legally required to complete the program.
“Victims have a voice and they need to be heard,” Smith said. “Through the reentry process there’s different steps a victim can take in order that their voice is heard … those are critical components to a victim’s safety.”
Koski then asked what a successful reentry would look like from a victim’s perspective.
Smith reemphasized the importance of the victim’s voice being heard, which includes things like ensuring the victim can make contact with the offender’s probation officer and holding the offender accountable while also providing support so that they do not commit crimes in the future.
“When we say successful reentry, understand that people make mistakes. They go to jail, they make mistakes,” Smith said. “Nobody wants to go to jail and have no place to go and have a lot of barriers in front of them. Successful reentry, to me, means not reoffending.”
Koski asked Cowgill what challenges exist here that prevent people from successfully transitioning from incarceration back into the community.
Cowgill spoke of her own experience being incarcerated while struggling with substance use disorder.
“For me, addressing underlying medical and mental health issues was huge,” Cowgill said. “And I was not able to do that without the Medicaid expansion in our state.”
Having the support available was one thing, Cowgill said, but being able to access those support resources was a challenge in and of itself.
“You might not have transportation, you might not have money, you might not even have a place to live when you get out,” Cowgill said. “That’s why it’s such a big deal that we are a reentry coalition because it doesn’t work without all of those pieces fitting together correctly.”
Smith noted that the lack of transitional housing, specifically a halfway house or something similar is one of the biggest barriers that people face upon reentry.
Love, INC’s primary focus is assisting people with finding housing, both transitional and long-term. Bushnell said that without a stable income, options on the central peninsula are limited. Love, INC will help those people acquire basic things like identification and a cellphone so they can start looking for a job, but all of that takes time, Bushnell said, and while they are waiting for assistance many people fall through the cracks.
“It’s a really vicious cycle of playing a waiting game while not having somewhere to sleep … so in the meantime you’re really likely to go commit a crime in order to find a place to stay,” Bushnell said.
The panelists agreed that greater coordination and communication among all the relevant agencies is a good first step. Thursday’s discussion was part of that process, but challenges exist there as well.
Koski said that one of the biggest challenges for the agencies is a bureaucratic one: sharing information like medical history between agencies requires a release of information form. That form is different for every agency and is very specific as to what information can be shared. With no universal release of information form, filling out the required paperwork further increases the amount of time individuals must wait before receiving the services they need. Koski said that the only way to alleviate this problem would be to change Alaska statute, which can only be done by state lawmakers.
Koski ended the discussion by asking the guests to urge their local lawmakers to prioritize the restorative and rehabilitative sides of the criminal justice system, rather than just the punitive side. Electing legislators that will properly fund substance abuse treatment, housing and mental health treatment, Koski said, will make it easier for those leaving prison and reentering society.
Koski also stressed the importance of community awareness and said that additional discussions similar to Thursday’s panel would be taking place in the near future so that the general public can be more involved.
“Talk to your friends and neighbors about these issues … what a lot of us are doing sometimes is preaching to the choir, and the choir’s already in the pew,” Koski said. “We want to bring people in that maybe don’t know about this issue or are opposed to this issue so that we can talk to them and maybe change some hearts and minds.”
Finally, Koski recommended that community members take mental health first aid training when classes are available, in order to be able to better understand when people are struggling through a mental health crisis. Kenai Peninsula College periodically offers classes in mental health first aid training, and Cowgill recommended the Alaska Training Cooperative as additional resource.