Barriers to work, education and housing keep Alaska rates high
For two out of every three convicted men in Alaska, the last day of incarceration begins a countdown to the next crime they commit.
“The whole point of rehabilitation is to keep people from going back down that road of crime,” said Alaska State Senator John Coghill. “But upon release, many men with criminal records face obstacles that make life outside prison walls nearly impossible.”
“People with certain convictions may be prohibited from volunteering and may be discriminated against by landlords,” explained State Senator Johnny Ellis. “Research show[s] these are the very things offenders need to get back on track.”
Roughly 25 percent of the prison population released in Anchorage find themselves with no resources of any kind. Denied access to jobs and housing, these men turn back to crime to survive—and, more often than not, soon find themselves back in jail.
States like Alaska are taking steps to shrink this statistic by addressing the problem through lawmaking and education. Another key player in the effort to reduce recidivism is the community: In Texas and Oklahoma, where cities have invested in community-based treatment programs, crime rates have dropped and corrections departments have saved billions of dollars.
In Alaska, the Chanlyut residential work-training and education program offers men released from prison a chance at beating the odds. Modeled on San Francisco’s Delancey Street organization, Chanlyut provides an opportunity for participants to overcome incarceration, as well as addiction and homelessness, by gaining job skills and living in a supportive environment that encourages positive change.
“Chanlyut gives men a solid opportunity not to return to prison,” said Program Director Bill Tsurnos, who adds that to successfully reenter society, former inmates need access to jobs, housing—and time.
“Life on the outside is uncomfortable for these men. Chanlyut gives them the time they need to learn to be comfortable doing good, comfortable with getting up each day and going to work, comfortable with being trusted,” he said.
More than 130 men have used Chanlyut services since its inception, and since 2009, 70 percent of Chanlyut’s residents have not reoffended after leaving the program. In only four years, the program’s reputation for helping men become productive and skilled members of the community has attracted the attention of local businesses.
“We have companies who now call Chanlyut looking for men who need jobs,” said Tsurnos, “because they know those men will show up on time, prepared to do good work.”
While prisons are an important part of rehabilitation, some lawmakers recognize the benefits of programs like Chanlyut that offer an alternative to incarceration, especially for those whose crimes are nonviolent.
In 2011, the number of imprisoned nonviolent offenders in Alaska was 62%, up from 42% in 2002—a figure that puts significant strain on prisons and their staff, and which burdens taxpayers.
With its resident-run small businesses, though, Chanlyut generates revenues that go directly back into the operational costs of the program, a model that has saved Alaskan taxpayers about $4 million.
As Sen. Mark Begich recognized, “Allowing those who want to improve their lives to do so with a self-governing structure ensures long-lasting results, and results in productive and important members of our community.”
At Chanlyut, men who might otherwise return to a life of crime have the opportunity to overcome the obstacles they face and discover a new beginning.