Faith-based program hits milestone at Wildwood

Alpha turns 1

A faith-based program aimed at keeping criminal offenders from re-entering the prison system recently celebrated its first anniversary, but developing and implementing that program hasn't been easy, an official said.


Jack Cowley, National Director of the Christian-based Alpha USA program, spoke Wednesday at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce's luncheon. Cowley discussed Alpha -- a program charged with reducing recidivism among the program's graduates outside -- and its past, present and future.

The state was influenced to start a Central Peninsula program based on the recidivism reduction results from Alpha's first program located near Houston, Texas. That program experienced a major difference between program graduates and the general inmate population: 8 percent versus 67 percent re-entry into the prison system, respectively.

Planning for implementation of the program locally was difficult, taking five years. Life-skills are taught along with Christian values during the program, but Wildwood lacks other options for offenders.

The program has 18 spots available for inmates. Cowley said he hopes the program grows to double that size.

As the first program of its kind in Alaska, Alpha at Wildwood still is evaluating overall impact on offenders' lives. In 2011, a total of 12 people graduated and two of them re-offended for a recidivism rate of 16 percent. The average recidivism for the general inmate population is 70 percent.

"Our first graduate (Sonny Thompson) had a spider web on the side of his face... he was a perfect example of a convict," Cowley said. "He had been out of prison for no longer than eight months for years and years.

"Soldotna Parish worked with him, adopted him, and he is doing great."

Thompson resides in Atlanta, Georgia and works in the construction industry.

Using the analogy of future-cigarette packages including graphic warning labels, Cowley lamented that there is no push to stop all smoking -- or crime. Cops, judges and lawyers would be out of work, he said.

A negative consequence, however, is the population grows accustomed to having offenders and crime victims in their communities.

So, as long as prisoners continue to re-enter society the program will aid in acclimating them to practicing healthy lifestyles, Cowley said.

"I think it's harder to be in the program (than in the general inmate population)," he said. "When someone is in prison we expect them to act like a convict. The bar is raised, and they're expected to act like a moral, normal person."

Cowley retired from the State Oklahoma Department of Corrections with 30 years of service before becoming the director of Alpha USA. He said the program has been criticized as being soft on crime, but he disagrees.

"It's not soft on crime. It's big on public safety," he said.

Inmates with long-term sentences and serious crimes often are chosen for the program. They do not receive early release for graduating from the program.

Miraculous transformation through faith is possible, but it's rare, Cowley said. A small number of the program's inmates also are enrolled in substance abuse treatment.

Residential substance abuse treatment (RSAT) is not available at Wildwood. The RSAT program available to male inmates is located in Hudson, Colo. Wildwood has a 90-day, less intensive program.

All inmates who have need of substance abuse treatment are eligible for the program. Admission priority is given to inmates with a higher risk assessment and those who are close to their release dates, Richard F. Schmitz, DOC communications special assistant, said in an email.

After probation and parole violation, the top booked offenses at Wildwood are second-degree theft and third- and fourth-degree assault, according to data provided by DOC.

The majority of these crimes on the Central Peninsula involve alcohol or drugs, according to local law enforcement officials.

In 2010, the 90-day program replaced Wildwood's therapeutic community; an alternative justice model in which a collaborative court team made up of a supervising judge, district attorney, defense counsel, probation officer or substance abuse or mental health treatment provider, oversees and closely monitors participants who chose the treatment program in lieu of incarceration.

A study conducted by Alaska Judicial Council and the Institute for Social and Economic Research released in March found felons in therapeutic community programs or substance abuse programs appeared to have benefited from participation. All participants had lower re-arrest rates and reconviction rates than other offenders, the study found.

Cowley said he believes the Alpha program offers a full, cognitive approach to reform.

"Life skills, coping with problems... these are the things we teach," he said. "Just finding Jesus in and of themselves doesn't work."

The next step involves community involvement. Housing is needed, and business owners can hire ex-offenders, Cowley said.

Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at