Drugs in prison: former inmates give their perspective on the problem

 Serena Espinoza (left) and Terria Walters (right) of Fallen Up Ministries
Serena Espinoza (left) and Terria Walters (right) of Fallen Up Ministries (KTUU)
Published: Nov. 9, 2017 at 5:33 PM AKST
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When five female inmates overdosed on drugs last week at Hiland Correctional Center near Eagle River, it did not come as a shock to Terria Walters and Serena Espinoza.

"When I was in there, drugs were going in and out. I mean, it's not surprising" said Walters.

The two women met in 2005 while in custody at the Mat-Su Pre-trial Facility, and they later served prison time together at Hiland. Both struggled to overcome drug addictions, but have turned their lives around, and now try to help other recovering addicts through their faith-based organization called Fallen Up Ministries.

The women said during their time at Hiland, drugs were smuggled into the facility often.

"I know many people, this is really sad, but there are people who will intentionally commit petty crimes to bring in drugs into the prisons. They are arrested, intentionally," Espinoza said.

Family members of inmates also smuggled in drugs during visits, according to the two former inmates. "I've heard stories of drugs being found in baby's diapers, that's how severe addiction affects people. It's horrible to hear, but that's the reality" said Espinoza.

The two women said the powerful draw of drug addiction can actually get amplified in prison, if inmates don't qualify for treatment programs.

"They're just sitting there doing nothing with their time, their thought process goes to how to get high and how to stay high, and how to pass the time, too" said Walters.

They say often, inmates are surrounded by other drug addicts. "If they're not getting the help that they need, all they do is sit in the housing unit that they're in and tell 'war stories' " said Walters. "War stories are going over and over and over again about ' I got this kind of dope, and I did this kind of dope, and it was super strong' and then it leads to conversations of 'let's try to figure out how we can get some... I have connections'... and it goes on and on and on."

Fallen Up Ministries, according to the women, is allowed to enter Hiland once a month to describe the group's services, but they are hoping to expand their visits to offer peer counseling. "The relationship and the bond, it gives them hope because they're seeing our faces, and we're telling them our stories, what we're doing outside of those prison walls" said Espinoza.

But, the women say they face a barrier to offering their help. Court sentences forbid felons from engaging with other felons without permission from probation officers, which they say is often denied. It's a policy they are hoping to change.

As for the five women who overdosed at Hiland recently, Espinoza said "I just want to say if we can do it, so can they. There is a way out. there's another side to addiction, there's recovery."

A spokesperson for the Alaska Dept. of Corrections said recently that the overdoses last week are still under investigation, but that officials might have new information to release soon.