By Kirsten Swann
As Alaska struggles with lofty recidivism rates, an Anchorage-based nonprofit is quietly moving forward with a plan to chip away at the numbers via a specialized vocational training facility in Mountain View.
Alaska WorkSource hopes to train people in culinary arts, computer skills and construction, director Darryl Waters told members of the Mountain View Community Council in August. Articles of incorporation filed in March state the nonprofit focuses on ex-offenders and people struggling with addiction.
But although he’s working with the Municipality of Anchorage to secure a long-term lease on a 12,300-square-foot space on Porcupine Dr., Waters is still hesitant to make his plans too public. He said he wants to make sure things are done in order; that there’s too much hanging in the balance.
“It’s extremely important work,” he said.
He believes the right kind of employment training is the key to changing lives and reversing a range of social problems.
According to the Alaska Department of Corrections, the state’s three-year recidivism rate sits at around 63 percent for “standard” offenders and 58 percent for sex offenders–some of the highest rates in the country. According to the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance, “Employment can make a strong contribution to recidivism-reduction efforts because it refocuses individuals’ time and efforts on prosocial activities.”
But according to the Alaska Justice Forum, the state ranks first in the nation when it comes to legislative and regulatory barriers to re-entry and employment after incarceration.
There’s a glaring need for solutions. Waters thinks employment training is part of the answer.
Kevin Riehl agrees.
Just down the street from the proposed Alaska WorkSource facility, Riehl works as the assistant director at Chanlyut, a division of Cook Inlet Tribal Council. The Dena’ina Athabascan word means “new beginnings,” and the two-year residential program strives to provide just that to men challenged by addiction, homelessness and re-entry.
Tucked between a VFW post and a Checker Cab lot on Mountain View Drive, the Chanlyut facility is home to more than a dozen program participants and a lumbering black dog named Barney. The men who live there operate a landscaping and snow removal service, a janitorial service, a cafe and a wholesale food business that markets pre-packaged wraps, sandwiches, salads and cookies to local gas stations and eateries.
Riehl has seen, firsthand, the impacts of employment training on recovery.
He’s an advocate for options.
“The more resources available to individuals that are transitioning out of a program, the better,” Riehl said. “Options are a beautiful thing.”
Currently, there are a few opportunities for Alaskans struggling to reenter their communities after serving time in prison. Without work or housing, though, too many of them end up on the streets or in a shelter or, eventually, back behind bars. Alaska’s prison population swelled from 5,957 in 2011 to 6,286 in 2013, according to the Department of Corrections.
Programs like Chanlyut try to turn that tide.
Chanlyut itself is modeled after the Delancey Street program, from which Riehl graduated more than 10 years ago. After struggling with drug addiction and homelessness in Denver, he was accepted by the Delancey Street facility in New Mexico, where he learned about woodworking and work ethic and effectively turned his life around. It’s also where he met Bill Tsurnos, Chanlyut’s director and a fellow Delancey Street graduate.
Now, the two men work to give the same kind of hand up to others in similar positions.
“I did it, Bill did it,” Riehl said. “We are both present to say, ‘This is something that can work for you if you make the choice.’”
About 60 percent of the more than 180 men who’ve gone through Chanlyut never successfully held a job prior to the program, according to a 2014 impact report. About 70 percent of residents who participated for at least two months have not re-offended since.
Riehl believes the system makes a difference. While employment training gives people the means to provide for themselves, it can also impart the skills necessary to break the cycle of homelessness or addiction or incarceration. In a state where roughly two-thirds of offenders return to prison within three years of release, that’s a valuable result.
Chanlyut’s various enterprises don’t yet support themselves, Riehl said, but that’s ok.
“We focus more on the people thing–the training schools are just a product of what we’re trying to do here,” Riehl said. “The people business comes first.”
He said that idea–and the work Chanlyut does—has drawn strong support from different community organizations. He feels it’s needed in Anchorage and welcome in Mountain View.
“I personally would like to think that they like us here, because we are doing good work,” Riehl said. “I would think that people would want an organization that is working to train or help people get placed in a job.”
That’s where Waters and Alaska WorkSource hope to come in.
Robin Ward, a land management officer with the Heritage Land Bank, said the job training nonprofit is pursuing a “fairly long-term lease” at the Porcupine Dr. property, and has submitted a letter of intent and draft business plan to the municipality. Before a lease can be approved by the Anchorage Assembly, Ward said, the land bank will need to review Alaska WorkSource’s final business plan and verification of funding.
“It takes a while,” Ward said. “I would say it’ll take four to six months to go through that process.”
Meanwhile, re-entry and recidivism remain looming issues. When it comes to working out a solution, Riehl said there’s plenty of room for everyone.
“I think that the more opportunity, the better,” he said.