Wildwood attempts to help its inmates break vicious circle of substance abuse

Posted: Sunday, September 08, 2002

It was an August Monday morning like any other at the Wildwood Correctional Facility in Kenai -- as normal as any Monday could be at an Alaska state prison.

A young man named Elliot started off this particular morning in flux. He was in the hot seat for threatening a fellow inmate, and he was being judged by two facility staffers and a group of about 40 of his peers. Moreover, he was on the verge of being thrown out.

"Why should we let you come back?" asked David Peters, who is serving his 10th sentence for driving while intoxicated.

Elliot sat unmoved, arms folded as the room full of eyes bared down on him from seats lined around the walls. Another prisoner, Kelvin Lee, entreats the young man to open up and communicate with the group -- to accept what they have to offer.

"You've got to let stuff come in," Lee said. "I know what it's like to not say what you want to say. I figured I could come in here and not care about anybody, and I could do what I got to do and leave."

More questions, demands and challenges emerged from the men encircled in the room, directed at the young man who reacted with stoic defiance -- and silence.

Then, a lady's voice echoed from the circle. The same woman -- Lynn Avigo -- who set the edgy tone of the entire meeting added punctuation to the comments about Elliot's behavior.

"You are one of the most selfish, self-centered, self-seeking, thug people on this floor," she said, her voice resonating passion from the walls. "You don't realize what a privilege it is for you to be here. You don't ever threaten another person in here!"

The young man sat somber as 42 pairs of eyes burned into him. Unfolding his arms, he looked at the ground and spoke barely loud enough to be heard.

"I want to be in this because I know I need this," he said. "I'm trying to do something different. The way I was going is not working for me."

This Monday morning was only ordinary in the space where it took place -- the first-floor, south wing of Wildwood.


Tommy Pool listens at clients' feet as they wrap up one of the talking circles. Pool is lead counselor and the T.C. Unit supervisor.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Every day in the Therapeutic Community is one where prisoners with substance abuse problems commit themselves to a year to get clean and get ready to get on with their lives in the real world.

The meeting, called the full family function, takes place every Monday and Friday. There, family members hold one another accountable for each one's actions. Members of the family are Avigo, the program coordinator, Tommy Pool, lead counselor and the cadre of clients who have, in most cases, voluntarily submitted themselves to the six- to 12-month treatment program.

David Peters of Anchorage is a 44-year-old member of the family who is at the tail-end of his time in the Therapeutic Community. Since 1984, he has had three misdemeanor assault convictions and 10 DWI convictions, including one felony charge. Each time he was released, he said he was never able to stay sober more than 60 days. In that time, he said he has lost a wife and alienated himself from his family and seven children.

Each time he was released, Peters said he would go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings just because he was required to for his parole.

"I wasn't working the steps," he said.

In one of his last two drinking incidents, he said he attacked his nephew as the young boy was entering his home through a window in 2000.

"I did 45 days at Wildwood, and after that, stayed sober until March 1, 2001," he said.

On March 1, however, he said he found himself behind the wheel of a car, intoxicated. He was pulled over and arrested.

Peters said he elected to go through the Therapeutic Community to break the cycle of jail terms and return to living a "pro social" life.

"Instead of sitting around doing nothing, we're trying to change our lives," he said. "I want to do something different, instead of sitting around and letting the state take care of me."

Peters is just 14 days away from embarking on a new life away from state correctional facilities and, hopefully, he said, away from the alcohol abuse that has kept him in and out of jail for nearly 20 years.


Inmates in Wildwood Correctional Center's Therapeutic Community Unit line up to move from the decorated wing they call home to the "chow hall" where they eat. The T.C. "family" is separated from the prison's general population. Members have freedoms and responsibilities unique to the unit.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"I've been drinking since I was 8 or 9," he said. "I used to sneak drinks off the table when my parents had get-togethers. I believe what I'm learning here is going to make sure I think before I do anything stupid. I don't want to drink anymore."

He said in the year he's been in the treatment program, he has come miles away from the hopelessness he had come to know when he received his last sentence. Peters said he has learned things about himself that were buried deep in the far recesses of his heart and mind. Through the program, he unlocked the answer to the reasons for his sickness and how to begin solving his problems.

"When I came here, I was out of hope," he said. "When I got arrested, I felt like this place was where I belonged. This place gave me hope.

"The counselors are able to bring things out that I didn't know were in me. I thought I had a good childhood, but I never had a good education. I dropped out of school after the fourth grade. My father whooped up on me some. This place is making me understand what my relapse triggers are. And how to deal with them."

The Therapeutic Community opened its doors Oct. 16, 2000, with funds from the U.S. Department of Justice and a 26 percent matching three-year grant from the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority.

Wildwood Superintendent George Miller said the program is unique in its 24-hour, 12-month treatment strategy.

"That's quite unlike substance abuse programs anywhere in Alaska," Miller said. "Some judges will recommend that the offender participate in the program, because the judges know these (guys) will fall back into their habits once they get out. And we get people here who have been addicted to some kind of drug since their early teens.

"We're, in some respects for some people, a last-ditch effort."

The program is staffed by six counselors, including Avigo and Pool, from Akeela Inc., the privately owned drug prevention and rehabilitation program based in Anchorage.

The clients, as Avigo calls them, are completely sectioned off from the rest of the Wildwood facility, and have their own times to eat and their own courtyard and common areas. Rarely do they mingle with the more than 250 inmates in general population. And when their time is done, they do not return to the rest of the prison community, Miller said.

"When a person completes this program, we don't want them going to general population again," he said. "That's not the most favorable situation. Some receive a furlough into the community into a halfway house, some go into parole, and some go on regular release."

Those who participate in the program sign a contract of between six and 12 months with good reason, Miller said. He said the unconventional nature of the treatment requires time to take hold, and outside influences such as the inclusion of drug accessibility -- even in general population -- can be detrimental to the treatment.

"It's much more than 'this is what alcohol does to the brain,'" Miller said. "It's way, way deeper than that. There is so much work to be done with each person that we generally tend to keep them 10 to 12 months. Literature shows that long-term treatment is good, but it generally plateaus at 15 months, so 12 is good."


Bret Bush watches as Paul Harris weighs himself on a scale in Wildwood's kitchen. "I was down on myself when I first got here," Harris said. "I gained about 40 pounds when I first went to jail; I was in bed a lot. But now I care about myself. We support each other (in the therapeutic community) and help each other get fit."

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Brann Wade, the state Department of Corrections program manager, said the Therapeutic Community has graduated 44 clients in its two years, with about a 75 percent success rate.

"We've had some real dramatic success stories," he said, noting that the success was based on anecdotal information. "And there are some guys that are struggling."

Pool said drugs and alcohol are able to find their way into Wildwood, and as such into the Therapeutic Community. But he said offenders aren't punished for such infractions. And the philosophy works.

"We haven't had a dirty urinalysis for two years," he said. "If you get a hot U.A., we're not going to throw you out for that. That's what you've been for 10 years. Let's show you a different way."

Avigo said many of Wildwood's neighbors might be somewhat unnerved by their proximity of the Therapeutic Community floor.

"Believe me, they're out there saying, 'Oh Christ, another treatment center. What the hell is the Department of Corrections doing to make sure that when that guy gets out, he's not going to hurt my daughter?'" she said.

But she said it is definitely in the best interest of the surrounding Kenai Peninsula.

"It's a touchy subject because this approach is so different to correction. But I want the peninsula to know that (we are) working to make their lives safer."

The unusual factor about the program is that much of the discipline is turned over to those who are there for treatment. The term "accountability" is one that is used frequently among the family members.

There are a bevy of rules that Wildwood places on its residents. Within the Therapeutic Community, there are even more rules, Peters said.

Some of these rules apply to maintaining a healthy living environment, like extending common courtesies or cleaning up behind oneself.

Other rules are meant to promote mutual respect among the family members. Bad rapping, or talking about someone who is absent, is forbidden.


Inmates reach for a desert at the end of the cafeteria's buffet line.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Peters said the discipline is important to prepare them for the outside, and he said he takes it very seriously now.

"The T.C. rules are pretty much easy to break," Peters said. "If you can break a little rule, you can break a big rule."

Then there are the rules that keep each of the family members safe. Fighting is a violation of a cardinal rule. Threatening physical harm also violates a cardinal rule that could get someone kicked out of the program. This was how Elliot ended up in the hot seat on that particular Monday. But Peters said the plus side of such offenses is that there is a chance to grow.

"Most of the time, when you're the man in the hot seat, you come out of there knowing you did something right," he said.

He said he was there once, after he had been in the program for about six months. Peters was named as head of health and wellness, a client-run department charged with keeping up with exercise and recreational equipment.

But he said he began to abuse his authority, giving some more than their share of privilege to certain things. And eventually, he was called on the carpet for it in a full family function and asked to leave the gathering.

"I was asked to step down as department head, and they asked me to stay in my room," he said. "I almost left (the program). For a week, I sat around spinning, not knowing if they were going to discharge me."

He said he was angry and began pointing blame just as he had when he was arrested so many times for drunken behavior.

"I was at the point of saying, 'to hell with you people,'" Peters said.

He said he had to open up to the family and admit a lot of tough things to them, as well as to himself. Like how he couldn't read, write, spell or do arithmetic. And how he'd been abused as a child. That's when he said the message from all of it finally hit home.

"I flipped it and learned a lesson," Peters said. "I had to be truthful. I did use my job to benefit me and others.

"I had to make a change. I asked myself, 'Why be mad at others if I was the one doing wrong?' When I realized that, I felt a lot better."

Eventually, he was asked back into the family function. Both when he was cast out and welcomed back in, it was the doing of his fellow clients, Peters said.


Photo by M. Scott Moon

An inmate reads words proram graduates have left behind on a portion of one wall in the T.C. Unit's meeting room.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"You have to be held accountable," he said. "That's what they were supposed to do. Now, I don't want to break any rules. If I could still do it here, I could still do it on the outside."

Pool said handing much of the treatment over to the clients is what is so ironic. He said just by sharing their experiences with one another over an extended period of time in a closed environment, they come together and want to help one another beat their addictions.

"That's the amazing thing about this treatment," Pool said. "They do it. We help them to find their own strengths, and we capitalize on those strengths. Once they get the confidence, it just builds and builds."

This idea fell into place when Elliot moved from being in the "hot seat" to being the one to offer encouragement. Just like with Peters, the family wanted him to stay.

Kelvin Lee is a 37-year-old family member who has been in the program a little more than a month. He said he began using crack cocaine 17 years ago and had been in and out of prisons in Alaska and Nevada for 13 years for armed robbery. Soon, after moving onto the floor, Lee was informed he would be given a furlough for which he had put up a hard fight when he was in general population.

"Ms. Lynn came into the room and asked everybody if they had a chance to leave, what would they do?" Lee said. "Then she asked me. I didn't know what to say."

Lee said he has two children -- ages 12 and 18 -- living in Anchorage that he wants to see again. But he said, through his experiences with other treatment facilities outside prison walls, he would attend them until they'd run their course, then return to using drugs.

And he said he'd never had that type of option before.

"I would always take whatever they give me," he said. "I never worked for what I got. I would rarely think things through, and I wanted out."

If he took the furlough, he would return to Anchorage to go into a halfway house and then a treatment center. And he would be done with his sentence. He said Elliot, who was at one time on the verge of being kicked out, was the first person to encourage him to stay.

"He talked to me and said, 'You need this,'" Lee said. "They gave that man an opportunity, and he's making the best of it. He's around the same age as my daughter and he's talking to me like that. I respect him for that."

Although the furlough stands every day until Lee leaves the program next spring, he said he decided to stay to make the most of what the Therapeutic Community had to offer. And, hopefully, to help someone else.

"I've got to make a choice every day I wake up," he said. "It hurt, but it allowed me to make a decision that's good for me without giving up. I want to finish something that wasn't so easy. And I want to touch somebody else."

Lee will get a full release in May, just in time to see his daughter graduate from high school.

"I want to give that to my daughter," he said.

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