Changing hearts, minds: First graduate of new program re-enters society

Posted: Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sonny Thompson walked out of the 8-foot-tall chain-link gates at Wildwood Correctional Center a free man. April 5, 2011.

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Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Sonny Thompson, right, hugs the Rev. David Arestad as mentor Alex Zerbinos waits for his own hug after officials from Wildwood Correctional Center released Thompson from jail earlier this month. Thompson, who has spent most of his adult life behind bars, is the first Wildwood inmate to graduate from a new faith-based program designed to keep offenders from returning to jail.

A free man with little more than the shirt on his back and a wooden cross dangling from a blue string around his neck. The rest of his possessions -- books, mostly -- he carried out with him in a clear, plastic garbage bag.

Alex Zerbinos was there to pick him up around 1:30 p.m.

"There he is, he's my man," Alex said.

Sonny strode over to Alex, waiting for him outside his pickup truck. They hugged.

"I feel like I'm going to puke all over the place, man," Sonny said.

The chaplain was there, too.

"You did it," said the Rev. David Arestad, who works at the prison.

But he hadn't. Not quite. "Oh, son of a ," Sonny trailed off.

"Gun," Alex finished his sentence.

His inmate personal identification form had the wrong social security number on it.

"That's not my social security number," Sonny said. "That's my little brother's."

So the chaplain went back in the prison to get it cleared up.

"I have been up all night. Couldn't sleep. I thought I was being released at 7 o'clock in the morning," Sonny said.

Sonny is tall, about 6-foot-5, and so thin he looks almost malnourished. His eyes, a deep ocean blue, are inset and look out from above his sunken cheeks. He is 26 years old and has been more in than out of jail since he was 13.

He wears his jail time on his face -- a tatoo of a spider and its web on his right check.

Because Sonny served the entirety of his last sentence, he was free and clear upon release. No probation.

This is the first time he's gotten out of jail and wanted to do good, Sonny said. All the other times he wanted to party. Drink beers and see old friends.

And every other time he'd gotten out, he wanted to go back. Prison was safe.

"It's not fun. It's pretty scary," Sonny said about being out.

"I have to take my being released as an addiction," he added. "One day at a time."

Sonny is the first graduate of Wildwood's Alpha Re-entry Initiative, a collaborative program between the Alaska Department of Corrections, Alaska Correctional Ministries, and Alpha USA, a faith-based prisoner re-entry program.

The pilot program at Wildwood is for inmates who volunteer for the program, and who have a minimum of six months to serve.

The in-prison piece centers on a Christian education course, along with a substance abuse recovery program and sessions on life and job skills, said Arestad. Currently, Wildwood has the capacity to house 18 inmates in the program. All of the participants live on the same floor to create a sense of community and accountability.

The program is based on a model created by Alpha USA, and is operating at eight prisons around the country. There is no cost to the state to operate it. Churches, Alpha USA and community members privately fund the initiative.

The state has similar programs at the Highland Mountain and Palmer correctional centers.

At a recent open house for the new program at Wildwood, organizers and participants in the Alpha program spoke about its benefits.

The inmates sang, prayed and shared their stories with the crowd.

"I have no doubt in my mind you guys will never see me in this place again in these clothes," Sonny told the group, dressed in the institutional gold scrubs.

Sonny completed three months of the Alpha Re-entry Program and a course on alcohol and drugs simultaneously.

"Just because I've done three months doesn't mean I didn't have to work for it," he said. "This program is the only thing that changed me."

He said he owes that in part to his mentors who taught him life skills.

"I've never had anybody there for me when I got out."

A big component of the re-entry initiative is this mentorship program.

Each inmate is paired with a mentor, or two, to help him navigate his way back into society. The mentors provide the inmates with support, encouragement and accountability.

Most of the mentors are volunteers from within the faith-based community.

According to Carmen Gutierrez, a deputy commissioner at the Alaska Department of Corrections, 297 convicted felons were released into Alaska communities every month in 2009. Of those released, 66 percent came back to jail within one to three years. Currently, one out of 31 Alaskans is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Corrections.

The state is excited about this program, Gutierrez said, because it's creating change while the prisoners are in jail and providing continued support after release.

"If we haven't done anything to change the hearts and minds of the people that have been here it's no surprise," she told attendants and inmates at the open house.

A program like the Alpha Re-Entry Initiative at Wildwood, could help reduce the state's recidivism rates and the cost of incarceration.

According to a recently released study from the Pew Center on the States, Alaska could save $24.6 million each year if it shaved its 50.4 percent recidivism rate by 10 percent.

Arestad said the pilot program at Wildwood would be evaluated in a year or so. The goal is to make the re-entry initiative an ongoing program.

"With community support I believe people in prison can leave the institution and not come back," Gutierrez said.

The first thing Sonny ate after his released was a jack burger at PJ's Diner in the Kenai airport.

Alex drove him there. It was sunny, but not warm out. A clear, early spring day.

Alex looked at the sky and smiled. "This is a heck of a day to get out of the hole,"

Sonny didn't have a jacket but he didn't want one, even though Alex had brought some along.

"I need the sun on my skin," Sonny told him.

Inside the restaurant, Sonny and Alex talked about what he needs to do to get back into society.

First, he has to stop by the Alaska Alcohol Safety Action Program office to pay for his education program. Then he's going to get settled in at the Kenai Friendship Mission, a homeless shelter in North Kenai, where he'll be staying until he finds a more permanent home.

They ordered. A shrimp basket for Alex. And potato salad instead of fries with Sonny's burger.

He needs a job, and an identification card. But all of those things will come.

Sonny prayed before he ate, crossing himself before crossing his hand beneath the table.

"I never realized how good real beef tastes," Sonny said, dipping his burger in the creamy salad.

Sonny likes to cook and worked in the kitchen at the prison. He said there they use textured vegetable protein instead of meat. It tastes like cardboard.

"This is thumbs up amazing," he said.

As they ate and talked, they watched a small, shiny, commercial aircraft on the runway.

"I can't believe how beautiful it is outside," Sonny said.

"It's a lot prettier when you don't have to look through wire," Alex told him. "Savor this moment and remember it. When you screw up think back."

"It's not that I want to. I can't," Sonny responded.

When Sonny was 13, he was arrested for car theft while driving his grandparent's truck around the Butte, up in the Mat-Su.

"I've been driving since I was 7 or 8. We owned a ranch," he said. His grandparents raised him in Texas and Oklahoma before moving to Palmer.

His grandparents did not want to press charges. But because he was a juvenile the state did anyway, he said.

He was put in the McLaughlin Youth Center in Anchorage. While he was in jail both of his grandparents died. His grandma had liver cancer, and seven days after she died his grandpa died from leukemia.

"Once they passed, things went to hell," Sonny said.

He tried to kill a staff member at McLaughlin.

"I hated the system because they took me away from the only people I ever loved," Sonny said.

It was worse because the staff member was female, he said. They tried to try him as an adult but he remained in the juvenile system.

He got 10 years, but he served five in juvie, three in solitary confinement. He finished that sentence in Anchorage and Point MacKenzie.

Whenever he did get out he would get wrapped up in more crime. Theft, vandalism, forgery. Things that violated his parole and carried a sentence on their own.

"They were stupid little things I didn't need to do," Sonny said.

But he felt safer in jail than out of it.

"This is normal and it feels so weird and uncomfortable because it's not what I'm used to," Sonny said.

"It'll get better," Alex said.

"It already is better," Sonny replied.

Along with Alex, Sonny's other mentor is Scott Earsley.

He picked him up to go to the job center in Kenai so Sonny could look for a job and sign up for public assistance, and then go to the DMV to get an identification card.

Sonny needs glasses and some dental work, so he was trying to figure that out, too.

He can't see very well and never received glasses when he was in jail.

"For some reason I fell through the cracks," he said in a mocking tone.

Sonny's teeth are brown and rotted near the gums, visibly decaying in his mouth.

He said the only dental care the prison would provide is to pull teeth, and he didn't want that.

"I'd rather have a broken tooth than no teeth," he said.

At the job center, Sonny found a posting for a cook at a lodge that he thought would be perfect for him. "I can cook like crazy," he said.

There was only one catch. The job requires employees to have no visible tattoos. Sonny has at least three visible tattoos when he's wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt.

He has a spider and its web across his right cheek. On his neck, a black sun with a hollow inside, frames his Adam's apple.

He also has a Marvin the Martian character on his wrist.

"I was going to be in jail for a long time," he said. "In jail they don't care."

His face tattoo means he spent 10 years in jail, five for the web, and another five for the spider.

"I have the opportunity to have it taken off and I won't," he said. "It's a part of me."

Sonny is staying at the Kenai Friendship Mission, the all-male homeless shelter on the Kenai Spur Highway, on the outskirts of the city.

Formerly a house of ill repute, the shelter is run by Graydon "Skipper" Cowgill and his wife Mary Anne. The couple regularly take in men freshly out of jail.

There are strict rules at the mission -- men must attend church services and Bible studies and there's a 4 p.m. curfew.

"It sucks, but it doesn't matter if I like it or not. I got to do it," Sonny said. "To know what's going on and what's expected of me, it's pretty much nothing different than in the jail or any other household."

Sonny is getting his community service done by working at the mission, helping Cowgill fix up the building that will become the permanent shelter.

Each night there's a Bible study after dinner at 7 p.m.

Sonny, who was brought up Catholic by his grandparents, says he rediscovered his faith through the Alpha program.

At one Bible study recently, Sonny was the only one who crossed himself during prayers.

Seven men sat around the table while Wayne Floyd, a volunteer who lives in Nikiski, led the session. He was talking about temptation.

"Don't set foot on the path of the wicked; don't proceed in the way of evil ones. Avoid it; don't travel on it. Turn away from it, and pass it by."

Floyd read to the men from Proverbs while they munched cookies and cake for dessert.

Sonny said he prays a lot.

"For other people mostly," he said.

But also for the courage, he said, for himself to avoid temptation.

"There's always thoughts of things I should not do but I try to get through them and what-not," he said.

"It keeps me from being angry," he said.

Floyd told the men that God will always show people a way out if they want it.

"You just got to look," Sonny replied.

Brielle Schaeffer can be reached at

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