OPINION: How lifers in Alaska prisons can help rehabilitate convicts
Men who committed some of Alaska's most heinous crimes could help rehabilitate other inmates and save money for the Department of Corrections. The suggestion comes from lifers themselves, prisoners whose long sentences mean they may never get out.
After decades in prison, entering middle age, these felons say they have outgrown the antisocial values and impulses of their youth. Even prison officials come to see some lifers as reliable older men who want to do something productive with their imprisoned lives.
"We're humans. In order to be healthy, we need to have feelings of belonging, self-worth and purpose," said Scott Walker, a prisoner at Goose Creek Correctional Center.
Walker teaches math to other prisoners pursuing a high school diploma or job training. When he was at Spring Creek Correctional Center, in Seward, he helped start a physical fitness program for mentally ill prisoners.
He said he earns 80 cents an hour. But he gets a lot out of the work.
"I've reached a level of maturity where I truly want to help people. I get a lot of gratification from that," he said.
In 1981, Walker participated in the brutal kidnapping and murder of Mildred Walatka, 72, and her son, Herbert Oakley, 48, after robbing Walatka's home. I knew the Walatka family as a child and I vividly remember the community's horror that year that I graduated high school.
Walker is a year older than me. He was 19 when he helped kidnap these people. But over the years he was in prison, his mother died, as well as many other family members and friends. He said it changed him.
"A lot of people go through the midlife crisis, and the same thing happens in here," Walker said.
Loren Larson learned exceptional furniture-making skills serving his double life sentence at Spring Creek. He also has technical construction knowledge that he could teach. Now incarcerated at Goose Creek, he wrote to me promoting inmate peer teaching, as he has written to others.
"I have a business mind. I know how to fix things that aren't turning out a good product. And the product is the people who are coming out of here," he said. "What the state is getting for the money it is spending is obscene."
Larson is smart enough to devise a program. As a prisoner representing himself in court, he has won lawsuits against the Department of Corrections, including one that went to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. He is still fighting his conviction for a 1996 double murder, swearing he is innocent.
Larson was 26 when he was arrested. Most prisoners come in as young men, often messed up by drugs or alcohol. He says they could be influenced early by elder prisoner-teachers toward constructive work and away from the idleness and malignancy of prison culture.
"When it comes down to it, we're men. We're builders," he said.
Larson believes his letters are being ignored, but his ideas are spreading. The superintendent at Spring Creek, Bill Lapinskas, got to know him, as well as Walker, over a career in corrections that paralleled their careers as prisoners.
"I'm a huge fan of some of his ideas and concepts," Lapinskas said.
Spring Creek currently has two inmates certified as instructors in construction trades, teaching other inmates. Lapinskas wants the program to expand so felons can get jobs in other fields not blocked by their criminal records.
Besides saving money on instructors, Laspinskas said the program gives lifers a sense of purpose that can transform them into positive role models for other prisoners.
The low-cost work can also fill gaps. Laspinskas said Spring Creek has no opioid addiction therapy for its 400 maximum security inmates. Because of the high demand outside prison, no bids arrived when Spring Creek solicited for the work. But 41 inmates are supporting one another in a sobriety unit.
Andy Jones, a state Health and Human Services official working on opioid issues, said Corrections should train lifers as certified drug counselors so they can offer formal treatment to other prisoners.
Larson's plan also includes the possibility of commuting sentences for lifers who make major contributions to the system and who are otherwise rehabilitated. He recently sparked an Alaska Ombudsman report that faulted the Governor for the lack of a constitutionally required clemency process.
And why shouldn't the best of them be released? If these men have grown up, learned to be responsible and no longer pose a threat, why should we continue to pay as much as $50,000 a year to house them for life, plus the huge cost of their end-of-life medical care?
Judges need to consider that waste when they issue multiple life sentences to young people. Almost everyone changes in 30 years.
But not everyone. Some commit crimes so horrific that it is difficult to believe in true rehabilitation.
Sergio Colgan became a certified barber instructor as a prisoner in Arizona and runs a highly successful training program at Goose Creek, graduating inmates who pass their licensing tests with high scores.
The Department of Corrections trumpets his story. Larson highlights the barber program as a model.
But Colgan's crime was so inhuman it is hard to imagine ever letting him go. In 1990, at 19, he carefully planned and methodically carried out the rape and strangulation of a 16-year-old girl from his Fairbanks high school. He had chosen her at random and had no other motive than enjoyment.
Some prisoners may need to be incarcerated as long as they live. But maybe even that doesn't have to be a total waste.
Walker wants to start a peer orientation program for newly incarcerated felons, men beginning the long journey he has taken.
He said, "One of the things they never do is get with the guy on an individual basis and ask them, 'What are you going to do with your time?' For some of these guys, they're going to be here for the rest of their life. And how are you going to use that time?"
The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to firstname.lastname@example.org or click here to submit via any web browser.
Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly. A lifelong Anchorage resident, he is the author of more than 10 books, and hosts radio shows on Alaska Public Media. More at wohlforth.com.