Kenai man finds way with help of religion

It's like refining gold.

"The more you put it through the fire, the shinier and shinier it gets," said James Triplett, an ex-prison inmate and newly dedicated Christian. "I looked at it as character building."

The 50-year-old Kenai resident was referring to the time he spent enrolled in a faith-based class at Wildwood Correctional Center. Establishing a relationship with Jesus changed his life for the better, he said.

The evangelicalism 101 course, as prison chaplain Dave Arested calls it, is related to the Alpha Program. Wildwood's Alpha re-entry program recently celebrated its one-year anniversary and offers participants more than guidance on scriptures. It offers life skill courses.

Triplett graduated from the fledgling program in November 2008. He said he believes the insights he gained from the class were far more helpful than any substance abuse treatment program. Alpha officials rely on a variety of offerings to rehabilitate their students, but Triplett believes religion solely changed him as a person.

Alpha USA describes this course as a holistic introduction to Christian faith.

Participants at Wildwood, who remained in the general inmate population, gathered for 12 weeks to watch a series of eight videos. Each video instructed the inmates through Bible readings.

There were five basic rules for the course, like no interrupting and no name-calling -- basic guidelines to keep it civil. Through discussion with volunteers and each other, prisoners contemplate what it means to have faith in their lives.

The 1-year-old Alpha re-entry program has incorporated the simple gospel course. The 101-course still is offered twice yearly, depending upon volunteers. The 18 inmates chosen for the more intensive re-entry program tackle deeper issues: criminal behavior, anger management and life skills.

"Our life skills courses include a finance class and a public speaking class," Arested said. "We're trying to get them ready for when they enter back into society."

Sitting in his Old Town Kenai apartment, Triplett chronicled his past and path toward a better living.

He said he took a chance and joined the program. After the first class, he had found what he was looking for.

"I didn't want a bunch of legalism and rules, you know, that basically just end being broken (in prison) anyway," Triplett said. "I wanted a God, to say I have God and that's where it started."

The former inmate does the occasional odd job -- washing windows with a friend or volunteering his time at local events -- but his mobility is limited as an Army veteran who wears braces on both legs. He joined the infantry at 17 and served for about six years.

Faith entered Triplett's life during this time in the Army. He joined a church along with other soldiers from his company.

He said he was misguided. After returning from construction work in the Bush, he felt distant.

"I felt ostracized from the church for a time," he said.

"But I always felt there was a God."

All of Triplett's offenses are alcohol related. He relied on substances to deal with problems, he said.

Enrolling in the course gave Triplett a deeper understanding of the Bible, as well as camaraderie with fellow inmates. Once everyone was comfortable, they sat with each other in the lunch hall and talked about how messed up things had been before they entered prison, he said.

"We didn't talk about our offenses as much, but we did talk about what our lives were like without Jesus in it," Triplett said.

About three months after completing the course, Triplett was released from Wildwood. It wasn't long, however, before he was back inside. He violated the terms of his probation by drinking. He said it wasn't prolonged use. Rather, he drank, he got caught and he went back to jail.

"I relied on substances instead of relying on God, and I went right back in," he said.

Not practicing what he had learned from the course was his mistake, he said.

"This time, I made a promise to myself, my wife, and I definitely made a promise to God that I was going to stick to it," Triplett said.

"He's my personal preacher," responded Kristi Brown, Triplett's wife of one year and companion of five years.

During a mid-April visit to the Kenai Peninsula, Jack Cowley, National Director of the Christian-based Alpha USA program, said he believes the re-entry 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 added.

Chaplain Arested agreed with this assessment. The basic course doesn't take the place of recovery, as it's up to each individual to commit to good for their community, he said.

"The 12-week class is to show the inmates practical evangelism," he said. "It's a basic question of life that a lot of people have. People have the responsibility to change themselves.

"But, we see guys really commit their lives to the Lord."

Shunning other avenues of aid isn't common practice for Triplett. He also attends a combination of mental health and substance abuse counseling at the local veteran's center.

He will be "program complete" in June -- free from substance abuse for about two years -- and faith has made it an easier road to travel, he said.

"The day I got arrested for my second, felony DUI, my mother had a massive stroke, and the only way I knew how to take care of it was to drink or to use drugs," he said in between sips of coffee. "Now, I've been alcohol and drug free for almost two years, and that's by the grace of God."

The more intensive, Alpha re-entry program that includes the course Triplett took had 12 graduates following its initial year. Two of those grads have re-committed offenses and are back in the system.

Arested said this is a good track record, a much lower recidivism rate than those who don't enroll. The community has backed the idea too, he said. The program will continue into the foreseeable future.

Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at jerzy.shedlock@peninsulaclarion.com.

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