“The country was built on the belief that each human being has limitless potential and worth. Everybody matters. We believe that even those who have struggled with a dark past can find brighter days ahead. One way we act on that belief is by helping former prisoners who’ve paid for their crimes – we help them build new lives as productive members of our society…the work of redemption reflects our values. The bill I’m signing today, the Second Chance Act of 2007, will build on work to help prisoners reclaim their lives. In other words, it basically says: we’re standing with you, not against you.” —President George W. Bush
Nestled in a wooded area near an upscale subdivision and Eagle River High School, overlooking the Eagle River Campground is an attractive frame building fronted by a paved parking lot.
Only when one looks off to the sides does the razor wire-topped fence make it clear that Hiland Mountain Correctional Center is a prison.
Once admitted beyond the reception area, the sharp clank of the steel doors locking vividly drives home that realization.
When in 1974 it became known that the prison was being built, neighbors became alarmed. They were angered that no advance word had been given. Fearful visions of escaped murderers breaking into homes spread among the populace.
To allay those fears, state officials called a public meeting to present plans and answer questions.
The facility was to be built on a 62-acre tract of land. It would consist of four connected dormitories, each housing 40 inmates.
Designated as a medium-security institution, it would have a fence, around-the-clock guards, and an ultra-secure isolated confinement area with a capacity of 20 beds.
Non-violent offenders assigned there were to have no more than two years remaining in their sentences and have good records with a strong likelihood of rehabilitation. They were to receive vocational training, classes leading to a high school equivalency diploma, and the possibility of transfer to a halfway house as they transitioned back into society.
The program was based on the then-latest theory of ways to reduce the number of repeat offenders and making the public safer. At the same time, it was hoped that money would be saved in the cost of incarceration and by transforming criminals into employed tax paying citizens.
After a lengthy question and answer session, accountant Jerry O’Connor, who was later to become a Municipal Assembly member, asked that a citizen advisory board be appointed as liaison between the prison and the community. A seven-member board including this writer soon was installed and worked closely with Superintendent Stan Zaborac. Although superintendents changed from time to time, the advisory board was active for many years. Among its recommendations that bore fruit were partnerships with local groups to provide education, spiritual guidance, participation in the arts and other beneficial programs.
Great success was seen in the number of cooks trained by the man everyone knew as “Frenchie” who went on to be gainfully employed after release.
The man hired to run the kitchen turned prison food into gourmet meals. Inmates assigned to help not only ate well but served under a master chef whom they emulated. The woodworking shop showed how to turn out items worthy of ribbons at the Palmer Fair.
One of the first involvements by inmates was serving as caretakers for dogs dropped from the annual Iditarod Trail Race which was inaugurated just the year before the prison opened. Deserving inmates were allowed to feed, exercise and clean up after dogs flown back from spots along the trail. The dogs were sheltered until they could be reunited with their owners. It is a program that has continued ever since.
Also continuing are musical performances by inmates, a program initiated by Chugiak resident Natalie Brooks, an advisory board member. Attention has been given recently to the orchestra that features current and former inmates. The orchestra now is made up of females.
Some years after Hiland Mountain opened, it was determined that an institution was needed to house up to 24 female inmates.
That number then was seen as the maximum number of serious offenders of that gender in Alaska. A separate building was constructed on the east side of the main structure. Since then, however, the number of female offenders in the state has increased to the point where they fill the entire facility. Thanks to physical expansion of the complex over the years, the current population is greater than 400.
Although the Chugiak-Eagle River community in 1974 feared dire consequences would result from having a prison in their backyard, most of those fears were unfulfilled.
There were two early escapes that made headlines. In the first, two felons made their way out of the facility and went to the nearby home of one of the correctional officers. There they stole a vehicle and assaulted the wife of the officer. They were recaptured and placed in another prison, and their sentences extended considerably. In the other case, a violent criminal was being held pending trial in the segregated high-security block because it was seen as the most secure place available. He managed to get over the fence while alone in the exercise yard and fled the area without harming anyone. He was captured and held elsewhere.
While there have been some disciplinary problems since, there have been no noteworthy escapes.
Drugs, however, have proved to be an increasing threat within the institution as well as in the community as a whole. Reports of five overdoses at Hiland Mountain within a matter of hours raised concern last month.
Recently announced was a partnership between the Salvation Army and the Department of Corrections aimed at reducing drug use. A $2.5 million annual contract was awarded to the social services organization to provide a drug treatment professional at Hiland Mountain and at Goose Creek facilities. The two institutions will also share counselors who will work with inmates in helping them shake addictions and find ways to avoid falling back into substance abuse once released.
While $2.5 million a year is a sizeable expenditure in a time of tight finances, the cost of incarceration is also high. Substance abuse is a major contributor to crime in Alaska. Keeping a person imprisoned in this state in 2015 cost $142.66 per day. Wages and utilities have not gone down in the two years since.
A Recidivism Reduction Implementation Plan released by the Department of Corrections in January of 2016 discusses various ways the state aims to lower the number of people who re-enter the correctional system.
According to that report, nearly two-thirds of those who complete their sentences return to prison. The plan is to lower that number by 25%, bringing a total of 1250 down to 938. It outlines a large number of things that cause people to end up in jail and lists various ways to remedy those causes. Education and increased job opportunities are among the top areas of focus.
Educational partnerships have been established with the Ilisagvik College in Utqiaġvik (formerly Barrow) and the University of Alaska Anchorage. Courses leading to associate degrees are offered in such things as construction trades, computers, solar photovoltaics, traffic control flagging, and environmental areas. General Educational Development (GED) classes and testing and a New Path High School program are offered by volunteers in conjunction with the Anchorage School District.
A list of volunteer and chaplaincy programs includes the Alaska Native Justice Center, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Chaplaincy Core programs, Hiland Mountain Women’s String Orchestra, Kairos prison ministry, Learning to Live/Learning to Love, Mary Magdalene Home Alaska, Narcotics Anonymous (NA), S.T.A.R./A New Beginning, Success Inside and Out Conference, UAA nursing students, Yoga, American Diabetes class, AWAIC/Domestic Violence, Four A’s/HIV & U and Pre-Release/Re-Entry.
The subject of corrections as tied in with social needs, criminal justice, and public safety is a complicated one. Public opinion is deeply divided between those who want to lock all lawbreakers up forever and those who look for ways to cure the causes of crime. The fact that state finances have shrunk brings a different angle to the way the problem is viewed.
In Alaska, the Department of Corrections presently is in turmoil. Recent publicity has been more negative than positive. A new commissioner is in place. Some division leadership positions are vacant. Solutions are desperately needed as are strong and experienced persons to show the way.
Urgency is added with the dramatic increase in violent crime being experienced in the state.
NOTE: This article may contain inaccuracies. Current information concerning Hiland Mountain Correctional Center is taken from news reports and the DOC Web site. There was no response to repeated interview requests in calls and emails to the commissioner’s office, Hiland superintendent, and DOC public relations person over two weeks’ time Nov. 27 to Dec. 8, 2017.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.