Venus Woods brings CITC services to Alaska’s prison population
Every Monday, Venus Woods is struck by a sobering thought as she visits Hiland Mountain Correctional Center and Anchorage Jail: “Alaska’s recidivism rate is 64 percent right now. If I’m in a room of 50 people,” she explained, “that means 30 of them are going to be back in jail in the next three years.”
Her mission? To lower that recidivism number by making sure individuals getting out of prison have the resources they need.
Prior to joining CITC as a supervisor with the Recovery Services Department, Venus worked at the Alaska Native Justice Center (ANJC), where she helped implement that organization’s prison in-reach efforts. Joining forces with Partners for Progress, Partners Reentry Center, and New Life Development, she has continued to connect individuals with programs and services that may be the key to helping them stay out of prison.
“Reentry starts the day you go into prison,” said Venus, who also conducts in-reach at Goose Creek Correctional Center four times a year. “The day somebody starts serving their sentence is the day they need to start preparing to live their life differently.”
But regardless of their determination to do so, the men and women who are released from Anchorage’s prisons often face seemingly insurmountable odds. Not only are they often discriminated against by potential landlords and employers; they often don’t have a foundation of family or education from which to start.
“A lot of times we’re dealing with a kid who got in trouble at 18 or 19 and is now 21,” Venus described. “That kid probably hasn’t applied for a job before. Maybe he doesn’t have the education he needs. Then, combine that with being Alaska Native, from a village, and having to make it in Anchorage. He may not have any family around, and now he’s a felon. It’s rough.”
Venus wants to give that young man — and every other individual in the prison system — a leg up the day he is released. On her in-reach visits, she tells inmates about the broad spectrum of programs that make up Recovery Services’ continuum of care — everything from assessments and detox to alumni services and peer support — including CITC’s Chanlyut residential work-training and employment program, where former inmates can find work experience and crucial support that inspires positive change.
“The day somebody starts serving their sentence is the day they need to start preparing to live their life differently.”
“When they come out, they need everything,” she said. “Some more than others, but most don’t have a lot of family support or resources.”
Venus isn’t just speaking theoretically. When she got out of prison in 2009, she had many of the things the inmates she now helps don’t: a solid foundation, strong family support, access to treatment for substance abuse. Still, she recalled, “You come out and you have to learn how to live again. I definitely had challenges, and I still do. But I’m glad I got to walk this path because I think I help a lot of people.”
She’s not content to help individuals one-on-one, either; Venus believes in advocating for significant change within Alaska’s correctional system, which is why she stays active in the state’s reentry efforts. Along with her colleagues in Recovery Services, she is lobbying to bring substance abuse assessments into the prisons so individuals who are released can more easily access treatment. She also works with Alaska’s Hope Court, facilitating Moral Reconation Therapy, a program designed to alter how individuals make decisions between right and wrong.
She also wants to see the state leverage technology to allow individuals from remote villages to return home more quickly.
“A lot of times, there are anger management or other classes they have to do as a requirement of their sentence,” she explained. “But the classes are only available in Anchorage, and they might have to wait months to get into them. With Skype and webinars, there’s got to be a way they can fill those requirements and still go back to the village. Otherwise, we’re just setting them up for failure.”
Still, she’s excited about the changes that are currently happening in the justice system. While she champions for further change, she’ll continue to connect inmates with the services they need to succeed.
“It’s an exciting time right now if you’re into criminal justice,” she said.
For more information about the programs and services offered by Recovery Services, please visit the department webpage.