Having spent two and a half years in prison by the time I was 26, I never thought I’d be invited to Alaska’s only maximum-security prison 10 years later. But on 20 September 2019, I received a phone call from Spring Creek correctional center that would change my perspective forever.
My path brought me from experiencing trauma, addiction and federal incarceration to attaining sobriety, graduating from law school and interning in the Obama White House. Now I work on criminal legal system reforms at the state and national levels.
Through this work, I have a deep understanding of prisons, but I am not a proponent of using mass incarceration to “cure” society’s ills. I have found that incarcerating people rarely addresses underlying causes and conditions such as poverty, trauma, addiction and mental illness. Much more often, it compounds them.
But when I arrived in Alaska for a vacation and I got a call from Bill Lapinskas, the warden at Spring Creek, I was intrigued. During my 10 years of personal and professional experience with prisons, I had never once been invited by a warden or superintendent to come see their facility – let alone to showcase their good work. Prisons are generally shielded from the public. In some cases, this is due to their geographical remoteness, but many times it is because prisons lack any rehabilitative culture and programs worthy of sharing.
“You have to come down and see what we’re doing,” Lapinskas said when he called.
Next thing you know, I had borrowed a huge, old Ford Expedition with semi-functioning headlights and was barreling down the Seward highway through an absolute deluge of a rainstorm.
The storm subsided and I finally approached this bizarre sight – a maximum security prison surrounded by beautiful snow-covered peaks and glaciers; nature’s pristineness intertwined with humanity’s cruelty. I had never seen a prison setting quite like this before and I wondered what I would find inside.
Lapinskas is a bearded, rugged-looking man with what struck me as a serious demeanor. I felt at ease as he held out his arm and greeted me with a warm smile and firm handshake. Some people envision, or have directly experienced, prison staff members being actively cruel, but in my experience, the actively cruel are the minority. What is more common is utter indifference – which is a cruelty of its own. I’ve often felt like I may as well have been a widget on an assembly line at a production plant to many of the correction officers, who are taught to be wary of incarcerated people and their families, to keep their guard up, to not get too friendly.
Lapinskas was different. As we walked through the facility, incarcerated people approached us, politely curious about why I was there. Usually this interaction goes differently: with wardens either bombarded with desperate pleas, or perhaps more concerningly, avoided out of fear of repercussion.
I learned Lapinskas kept an office in the middle of the prison, where incarcerated people could come to him directly with their thoughts and concerns. As a result, influential people would go to him to quell potential problems before they erupted. This was not considered a form of “ratting”, it was an effort to maintain peace and stability on the prison compound.
Lapinskas told me everyone there was part of a community. Perhaps a strange community – surrounded by wire and walls – but a community, nonetheless. His job was to ensure this community was as safe, healthy and productive as possible.
Normally, prison walls are barren or have only slogans about order, discipline and safety, but here the walls were adorned with original artworks created by residents.
There were sign-up sheets for addiction recovery support groups, which I learned were mostly peer-led. Incarcerated people at Spring Creek taught classes on moral reasoning. The lesson had an impact: a local newspaper reported that incarcerated people who had taken the course later asked prison staff for a room where they could cool off to avoid fights.
Although many states, such as North Dakota and Oregon, are increasingly remodeling prisons, and doing exceptional work towards rehabilitation, this is uncommon. While I was being held in a maximum-security unit at the federal detention center in Brooklyn, New York, nothing was offered to help us spend our time constructively.
Leading a positive, healthy life on the outside often hinges on what’s offered on the inside – whether incarcerated people can access educational opportunities, learn trade skills or address mental health concerns – but that is rarely the priority in prisons. At Spring Creek, it was inspiring to see these programs celebrated and led by incarcerated people.
We went to the secure housing unit, often referred to as solitary confinement, where it is commonplace for people considered security threats to be locked up inside a tiny cell, often alone, near constantly. Sometimes, in solitary confinement, people start yelling when an official walks through, simply to vent frustrations or in a desperate attempt to have their unresolved grievances addressed. Here, the mood was calm and routine.
Spring Creek had made some unusual accommodations so that even the most unpredictable and volatile of the incarcerated people suffering from mental illness would not need to spend their time entirely alone in the secure housing unit, which exacerbates or creates mental illness and leads to astronomically higher rates of suicide than the general population. Its residents could still watch TV in the common area and easily communicate with others, including staff. While certainly imperfect, this was light-years ahead of the norm.
Prisons and jails have become the nation’s largest mental health “providers”, with 37% of people in state prisons and 44% of people in jail having been diagnosed with a mental health disorder. And yet, if deemed threatening or disruptive, those with mental health problems are often kept in solitary cells for 23 hours or more every day.
In the recovery unit, incarcerated people suffering from addiction lived together, resolving conflicts with one another in healthy ways, and often without staff involvement. Here, they worked together on goals such as achieving and maintaining sobriety, making amends for past harms and developing healthy relationships.
I thought I had seen reform at Spring Creek, but nothing I’d seen so far would compare to the re-entry unit. Re-entry is incredibly important. After years of living in prison, it’s often hard for people to reintegrate into society. It can be strange to suddenly move from a rigid, routine structure into a chaotic outside world. People speak of missing the routine and familiarity of prison; some even struggle to sleep in a room that’s not locked. Just as incarceration is traumatic, exiting incarceration can also be traumatic.
Creating an atmosphere that prepares people for the outside world is paramount: in Washington state – comparatively one of the better states when it comes to rehabilitation – one out of three formerly incarcerated people will be back in a state prison within three years of their release. Nationally, 44% of incarcerated people return within the year. This is unacceptable, and should be a call to institute transformational reforms.
At Spring Creek, people who were getting close to release lived together and supported each other.
There was a mentorship program, led by people serving life sentences – who had lost the chance for freedom, but could help mentees understand the opportunity. The re-entry unit was selective: prospective residents needed to demonstrate to the people already living there that they truly want to succeed after release.
The unit was intended to resemble something closer to an apartment share than a prison. A local warehouse donated some clothes so people would have something to wear on release day. Some cells had televisions and mattresses and beds instead of prison bunks, so that people who had been living in a prison for decades could get a feel for living on the outside.
It might not sound big to those who have never been incarcerated, but the simple joy of being able to sleep on something other than a thin prison mattress – which are usually very uncomfortable – makes a huge difference in how a person feels, and can directly affect their physical health.
Normally, in maximum-security units, people are locked in their cells all night, and much of the day as well. Here, despite being a maximum-security prison, cell doors were left unlocked 24/7 and residents could roam relatively freely. Men on the re-entry unit were within days or weeks of release. When I asked Lapinskas about his reasoning, he said, “If we can’t trust them not to do anything bad to each other or the staff in the re-entry unit, then we have failed so miserably that we don’t deserve to do this work.”
On my way out, I saw handmade art in a display case, up for sale. The incarcerated people were allowed to make a profit from their artwork to support their families, and to pay for their own expenses while incarcerated. Maintaining or creating strong family connections while incarcerated is vital and promotes successful re-entry.
The prison and state took no cut of their profits; whereas in many prisons across the country, it is routine for incarcerated people to be put to work for minuscule wages.
I left the prison deeply moved and elated. I drove to the shore in downtown Seward and reflected on the possibility of implementing similar reforms across the United States.
Please do not take this as an ode to incarceration in any way. I’m vehement that we must dramatically reduce our prison and jail populations and can do so safely. Black and brown communities specifically, and poor communities more generally, have been disparately targeted and harmed by both over-policing and mass incarceration in the US, and this system must be transformed and atoned for. Beyond a universal desire to treat others with basic human dignity, it is always worth remembering people in prison are often released – and we should care about what kind of neighbors, parents and community members they will be when that happens.
So long as we do have prisons and jails, we must embrace the types of culture and practices I witnessed that day while at Spring Creek.
Sadly, Lapinskas’s reforms, which began when he became warden in 2016, were rolled back following the election of a new governor, and Lapinskas abruptly left the Alaska department of corrections in 2020. This oasis of experimentation within an old maximum-security prison was brought to a screeching halt.
But if we are to learn one lesson from it, it is that substantial positive changes are both possible and essential, even within the confines of our current system. When people are treated humanely and properly prepared for release, their chances of returning to prison are dramatically decreased. We cannot compound trauma and expect people to magically heal and stop harming others.
Christopher Poulos is the executive director of the Washington Statewide Reentry Council. He writes this in a personal capacity.