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Where should inmates go when they leave jail? Alaska plans big changes to halfway-house system.



The Alaska Department of Corrections wants to move away from placing inmates leaving prison in halfway houses. Instead, officials are looking into using much smaller, privately run transitional houses.

The current system isn't working and high recidivism rates prove it, said Department of Corrections Commissioner Dean Williams.

"One of the clues is when an inmate tells you they don't want to go to (a halfway house) because the temptation to use drugs is high," Williams said.

The idea would be to shift inmates into much smaller "transitional housing" or "sober living" residences that would be paid through a voucher system, said DOC spokeswoman Megan Edge.  "Instead of having 60 guys in one location, we'd have six," Williams said.  "We've been using the same halfway house model for 20 years," he said. "And in that time we have not made any change in terms of our recidivism reduction."  About two-thirds of people released from Alaska prisons wind up back behind bars.  Williams stopped short of saying he plans to immediately close any of Alaska's eight halfway houses.

It would be reckless to shut the facilities without another plan in place, Williams said.

Halfway houses are minimum-security detention facilities that have traditionally been used as a stop on an inmate's way back to living in society after serving jail time.  As of Tuesday, 290 people were housed in them statewide, according to the DOC. Of that number, two dozen were accused of nonviolent crimes and awaiting trial.  In Alaska, halfway houses have been beset by highly publicized escapes and a festering drug problem.

Williams has been shrinking the number of inmates housed at halfway houses over the past two years.

The DOC contracts with private companies to operate Alaska halfway houses. The Florida-based multinational company GEO Group operates six of the eight. The Glenwood Center in Anchorage is managed by TJM Western, a Las Vegas-based company. Glacier Manor in Juneau is run by a nonprofit, Gastineau Human Services.

In a conversation Tuesday, Williams took pains not to criticize GEO Group for its halfway house management. The state also has a contract with B.I., a GEO Group subsidiary, for its growing electronic monitoring services.

"I'm not going to diss the company," he said.

When rampant escapes became a highly publicized problem at the downtown Cordova Center, the company made changes including investing in tighter security and more activity programming. It spent more than $1 million on upgrades and added security.  Escape numbers have since gone down, Williams said.

But concentrating large numbers of inmates together as they try to make new lives outside of prison doesn't make sense, he said. In the Cordova Center, inmates are stuffed into what's essentially a dorm-style apartment building.

"The problem with some of the halfway houses is that there's 60 guys and 25 are still working, but (the rest) are still sitting there watching TV," Williams said. He envisions a system where "transitional housing vouchers" allow the DOC to put prisoners in smaller supportive living homes that have services appropriate for each offender, rather than a "one size fits all approach," he said.  Williams cites Haven House in Juneau as an example of what the new system could look like.


Haven House bills itself as a "faith-based organization providing supported structured living opportunities to foster healing and self-sufficiency for women coming home after incarceration."   Its founder, Kara Nelson, has become an influential voice in criminal justice reform and entry efforts. But the house has been controversial. A neighborhood association in Juneau's Mendenhall Valley waged a two-year legal battle to shut it down but lost.

Williams said it was too early to talk about where the houses might be located. The community would have to accept the presence of a transitional living home, he said. "I am not putting these in any places people don't want them," he said.

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Re-entry without relapse: New DOC program aims to help prisoners with opioid addiction history

By Eric Ruble Photojournalist: John Thain - 8:08 PM April 11, 2017


Alaska’s fight against opioid addiction has a new battleground behind the walls of its prisons. The Alaska Department of Corrections (DOC) has begun a pilot program to administer Vivitrol to inmates with a history of opioid addiction.

The injection blocks opioid cravings and prevents a person from getting high for 28 to 30 days. Qualifying inmates at the Hiland Mountain, Anchorage and Fairbanks Correctional Centers can participate in the program.

Roughly 60 people have signed up to receive Vivitrol so far. Sadie Douglas, who has been an inmate at Hiland for about two years, will be the fourth person at the prison to receive the injection shortly before she is released in late April.

“It’s just another tool that would give me a fighting chance to be successful when I leave here,” Douglas said.

She said while the medication alone will not ensure her success after being released, it is one important step toward rebuilding her life. Douglas’s addiction story began by abusing prescription drugs. She later turned to heroin as a cheaper alternative. The addiction led to the end of her marriage and damaged her relationship with her two children.

“I love my kids more than anything in this world, and I never thought that there was anything that could take me from them,” Douglas said of her addiction. She has been sentenced to time in prison twice.

Dean Williams, the commissioner of the DOC, said he was looking for a way to reduce recidivism of opioid addicts, and Vivitrol is one promising solution.

“I’m just looking for the men and women who are raising their hand inside the prison system and say, ‘Man, I don’t want to come back. I want something different,’” Williams said.

Prisoners who sign up to receive the injection go through a series of mental and physical exams to ensure they are prepared for the injection. It is administered as close to a prisoner’s release date as possible. The DOC wants to give offenders as much time as possible to find treatment, work and a provider to receive their next injection.

“It blocks cravings for the offender and it also blocks the opioid receptor sites, which means if the offender does go out and use their drug of choice – an opiate – they cannot get high,” said Autumn Vea, the criminal justice planner for the DOC.

She said while only Vivitrol is currently being administered to inmates, buprenorphine and methadone will follow.

Douglas is hopeful Vivitrol will allow her to focus on the important parts of the re-entry process rather than being distracted by her addiction.

“Anything I can do to help me be a success, I’m all for it,” she said.

Each Vivitrol dose costs $1,200. However, the first 1,200 doses were donated by the medication’s manufacturer, Alkermes.

Prisoners can volunteer for the injection or can be referred by prison staff or a loved one. If you know an Alaska inmate who might be a good candidate for Vivitrol, email

Heroin overdoses spike in Anchorage

By Lauren Maxwell 6:11 PM May 16, 2017

The Anchorage Fire Department reports a dramatic increase in the number of suspected heroin overdoses in the first two weeks of May.

Assistant Fire Chief Erich Scheunemann said the department is using a lot more of the life-saving drug Naloxone to revive people who have nearly died.

According to Scheunemann, November of 2016 was the month last year when paramedics used the drug the most for suspected heroin overdoses. That number was 17. But, in just the first two weeks of May of this year, Scheunemann said the drug has been used 34 times. And those, according to Scheunemann, were only the worst cases, there were others where someone OD’d.

“When I say 34, there’s a lot more that we haven’t had to use Naloxone on,” said Scheunemann. “We still transport them but they weren’t critical enough that we had to use the medication on them.”

Something has changed, but Andy Jones with the Alaska Department of Health and Human Services said it’s too early to say exactly what.

“Is it related to synthetic opioids? Do we potentially have a new batch of heroin or illegal substances that have made their way to Alaska?” asked Jones.

Jones said the state hasn’t seen the dangerous synthetic opioids that are killing people in the Lower 48 but says if and when we do, the overdose numbers are likely to go even higher.

“These are almost instant death,” said Jones. “Some of these really powerful synthetics can be mixed any way and used in different formats. We just have to be very careful.”

Jones said the best way to keep people alive for now is with heroin/opioid rescue kits, which the state is distributing for free to anyone who wants one. Jones said the best way to find out where to get one is to go to

Pregnant in prison: What happens to a baby born in prison

By Rebecca Palsha / KTUU | Posted: Thu 5:16 PM, Oct 27, 2016  | Updated: Fri 11:06 AM, Oct 28, 2016


She had been in and out of jail for drugs, mainly meth and heroin, she says, for much of her adult life and knew the routine. But this time, while being processed to begin 25 months behind bars, she realized the nausea she had been feeling wasn't the flu. It was morning sickness.

She was starting her two-year prison sentence while pregnant. Her boyfriend wouldn't be able to help, Reagle knew. He had drug problems too, and was already serving time in another prison. As she walked past the other women at Hiland, wearing her bright orange inmate jumpsuit and her mind crowded with the thoughts and fears of a new mother, she faced the same question as thousands of women across the United States each year. What happens to a baby born in prison? As the inmate population in the United States has grown, the number of children with a parent in custody has risen to nearly 3 million kids over the past four decades, a federal study found. Of the 380 women serving time this month at Hiland, only 10 didn't have children, social workers say.

Four of the women at Hiland in October, including Reagle, were pregnant.

Most women who give birth while incarcerated have to hand over their baby to a family member or friends. If no one can help, then the baby goes to the Office of Children's Services. In some states there's been a push to create prison nurseries that allow women to keep their newborn children with them, behind bars, where they can stay with their mothers until the child is 18 months or 2-years-old. Eight states have prison nurseries with another one being built in Wyoming.

According to Karla Hicks, a social worker with the Department of Corrections at Hiland, a prison nursery at Hiland could possibly reduce the recidivism rate of women prisoners and reduce the number of children born to inmates who then grow up and commit crimes.

"Any dollar that we can spend to keep a child out of the system would benefit society as a whole," Hicks said. "And if we look around, youth crimes have increased because those kids don't belong."

Inside the barbed-wire enclosure of Hiland Mountain Correctional Facility, a women's prison about 15 minutes away from Alaska's largest city, Hicks and Reagle sat for a series of interviews about life in prison for women with young children, pregnant women and women whose teenaged daughters now serve their own sentences here alongside their mothers. Hiland is in Eagle River, on a campus that looks more like a mountain retreat than a facility that can hold up to 400 prisoners including murderers and gang members.

Hicks and Reagle sat in a room for children who visit the prison to see their mothers. There are rows of dolls and stuffed animals, piles of books, and a mural on the wall of the mountains, a lake and a soaring eagle. Beside the mural is a wooden crib and horseshoe shaped nursing pillows with patterns of flowers and polka dots.

"I don't know any pregnant woman that would want to be here," Reagle said. Hicks says that once a prisoner has her baby the pair can be together for two days, at the hospital, and then the woman is sent back to prison.

"They're sad," Hicks said. "I see a lot of tears immediately when they come back. I'm the first person that sees them, after medical, so I have them start journals, writing letters to their babies."

Hicks says the newborns are able to be with their mothers at Hiland for an hour a day, as long as the child's custodian brings them in, which she says, rarely happens. Woman also can't pump to provide their babies with breast milk because the prison can't keep bodily fluids stored there.

Reagle says most women don't talk about their children here. Some, she says, she didn't know had children.

"It's more of a sore subject," Reagle said. "I don't bring it up, necessarily, because a lot of woman, of course, are very torn that they're not with their kids and some take it very hard."

Hicks says a unit that allows babies and mothers to be together during a sentence could cut down on mothers coming back to Hiland and stop a cycle of incarceration in families.

"I think the baby's being punished even more so than the mother is," Hicks said. "Because where does that child get that bond, that association, to know who's going to care for them if we keep bouncing them around?"

Both women acknowledge there is little sympathy for prisoners and that by virtue of them being in jail it raises questions about their parenting.

"Ultimately it depends on your life outside of here," Reagle said. "If being in jail is the best place to keep you from using it's the best place to be if you're pregnant."

The Department of Corrections can't give a recidivism rate for a specific prisons because people transfer from one facility to another too frequently to get an accurate picture. But, calculated by gender, in 2013, which is the most recent information available, 63.1 percent of women felons were arrested again or back in prison.

It's also difficult to get an accurate picture for how much a pregnant woman costs the system. According to DOT, it varies considerably. If a woman doesn't deliver while in custody it may not cost anything other than in-house prenatal care. But, if it's a high risk pregnancy or a delivery with complications it may be tens of thousands of dollars. DOC says so far in 2016, the department has spent $164,000 on pregnancy related services. This number includes prenatal care and delivery services for 33 inmates

"Most of the women we have here are under five years," Hicks said. "If we could have a unit that moms could be with their babies for two years it would be great for them. I think it would be encouraging to them to even focus on a different path in life."

Correctional officer cared for addicted inmates in jail, and an addicted family member at home

By Travis Khachatoorian | Posted: Tue 9:43 PM, Jun 06, 2017  | Updated: Wed 1:06 PM, Jun 07, 2017

ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Opioid addiction in Alaska has destroyed lives and driven countless individuals to time behind bars. For Lieutenant Rebecca Wilkerson, she saw the faces of those addicts everyday, on and off the clock.

Lt. Wilkerson began her career as a correctional officer in 1996. She retired this March, and after more than 20 years on the job said she saw more and more inmates arrive at the Anchorage Correctional Complex with substance abuse problems.

“I don't think there was ever a day that I was there that there wasn't someone on detox protocol,” said Wilkerson.

Common symptoms of a person detoxing: sweating, shaking and vomiting. Wilkerson said she frequently saw arms tracked by needles. But as she took care of detoxing inmates on a daily basis, Wilkerson said she never imagined addiction would find itself in her own home.

“We watched this family member literally disintegrate within weeks [and] months of becoming introduced to heroin,” Wilkerson said.

Wilkerson took days off work and spent weeks at a time helping her loved one detox but said rehab was not working.

“She tried another rehab, walked out the door within a day,” said Wilkerson. “We came to the realization, you can't make someone want to get off the drug. They truly have to make that decision for themselves.”

Day in and day out, Wilkerson faced the horrors of opioid abuse but said the lessons learned helped her become a more proactive correctional officer.

Program works to reduce Alaska’s high recidivism rate

By Lauren Maxwell Photojournalist: John Thain - 7:43 PM November 21, 2014


About half the people who get out of prison in Alaska will be back within six months: It’s a costly problem some say will require a new prison by 2016 if something doesn’t change.

A new state-funded program is hoping to make a difference. It’s called the Partners Reentry Center, and it’s where George Goenett found himself after spending 22 years in prison.

In August, Goenett was released into the parking lot of the Anchorage Correctional Complex. It’s where most prisoners in the state are bussed back to after they’re released. Most have nowhere to go and nothing positive to do.

Goenett had been instructed to head to the Brother Francis Shelter but he took a wrong turn and eventually ended up at the Reentry Center. That turned out to be his good fortune.

“The Center is specifically intended to give people a positive, healthy way to re-enter a community,” said director Cathleen McLaughlin.

The Center opened 14 months ago, McLaughlin said, and since then it has helped more than 500 people get into housing and even more to find jobs. She said the system is a cost effective way to help people coming out of prison to get back on their feet.

“It costs $58,000 per bed to incarcerate somebody for a year,” McLaughlin said. “Our average cost to keep people out of jail and reduce recidivism is less than $1,000 a participant.”

In Goenett’s case, he found both housing and a job. He has a one-bedroom apartment in a program designed for adults who have recently been released. He also has a job as a professional cook.

Goenett said he’s thankful to have people helping him stay positive and on his path. After 22 years in prison, his journey to a new life is just beginning.

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