Alaska's lone women's prison welcomes men following facility shutdowns

Published: May. 23, 2017 at 4:52 PM AKDT
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Off the Glenn Highway, down a side road and just barely in the woods, lies what used to be Alaska's lone incarceration facility limited to female prisoners.

That changed on the first of May, when Hiland Mountain Correctional Center welcomed 30 men to its 63-acre campus in Eagle River.

However, the move isn't unprecedented, though the reason behind it may be a first: The men now housed at Hiland were previously living at the Palmer Correctional Center, according to the Dept. of Corrections. Due to budget cuts, PCC closed, with male inmates distributed to the Valley, Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula.

The ones who landed at Hiland are all continuing what's called the Transformational Living Community program - a six- to 18-month faith-based program designed to provide a spiritual base for correctional rehabilitation - from where they started it at PCC.

"It's probably the best way to learn about your faith, and grow, especially to grow in [your faith]," said Andy Nelson, a Transformational Living Community graduate and prisoner who now resides at Hiland. "Change doesn't come overnight. I like to say, you measure growth in how people change like you measure the growth in trees: About annually, there's a new ring."

Twenty-three men going through the TLC program and seven male mentors join about 300 women already in custody at the facility, 16 of whom are also currently going through the same program.

"I wanted to do something better and something useful for my life," said Tibni Resh, a Hiland inmate and TLC program graduate who now also serves as a program mentor. "It gives you this sense of hope. The internal change is really what matters.

"That's when you are free to think the right thoughts," she said, "and you're not in bondage to the old compulsions anymore."

But even though these men and women are part of the same program, and Hiland now has both men and women behind its walls, prisoners remain separated by gender.

"I've heard that the men and women were joined together," Johnson said. "Men were just running all over the institution and there was no staff. That's a misconception."

The only men at the prison are those involved in the TLC program. They live in a separate wing on the opposite side of the Hiland campus from the women. Walls, gates, cameras, doors, and barbed wires are among those that keep the two genders apart.

"A lot of different security measures," Johnson said. "Even before the men's TLC program came here, there were security measures we had to put into place."

Though PCC shut down, the Dept. of Corrections saw value in the TLC program, reporting a reduced recidivism rate of 33 percent among those who have gone through it. So, the men were moved to Hiland to continue their studies in an "appropriate space."

"Once they change their thinking, they can go back into society," Johnson said. "We call them productive returning citizens for society. So this is an exciting thing."

Together, but separately, the men and women in the TLC program will continue to praise and follow faith in the hopes of a turnaround. For now, that will happen at Hiland.

"We have men now in a faith-based program, where their lives are being changed and impacted and transformed," Johnson said, "and we also have women on the other side of the facility, where the same thing is happening."