First day out: Reconnecting & ordering the perfect eggs at Denny’s

This is the first of a five-part series looking at prison re-entry. Want more? Alaska Public Media is hosting a live community forum on Thursday, Dec. 3, at 7:00 p.m. to dig deeper into life after prison.

Every month about 1,000 people are released from prison in Alaska. In November, April Wilson was one of them.

It’s 6:45 a.m. and 43-year-old April Wilson waits inside the entrance of Hiland Mountain Correctional Center in Eagle River. It’s her first day out after two and a half years in prison. Her long dark hair is perfectly curled, her eye makeup sparkles, and her piles of papers and decorations are gathered in a clear plastic garbage bag.

“Let’s blow this joint!” April exclaims excitedly.

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April Wilson in Hiland Mountain Correctional Center in Eagle River before her release. Photo: Anne Hillman/KSKA.
April Wilson in Hiland Mountain Correctional Center in Eagle River before her release. Photo: Anne Hillman/KSKA.

She’s ready for the world. Except she doesn’t have a jacket, just a thin hoodie, and it’s about 15 degrees out. The person picking her up is Joan Miller, April’s mentor. They met through a faith-based therapeutic program at Hiland called the Transformational Living Community, or TLC. It’s focused on overcoming addictions. They’ve known each other for about a year.

“I don’t know if you need an extra fleece?” Joan offers, handing April her husband’s old black jacket and a scarf.

“Sure! Brr!” April shivers. “Thank you, Joan!”

As we drive toward Anchorage, Wilson borrows my phone to call her 18-year-old daughter. Within minutes of hanging up, her mother is on the line.

“That’s crazy my mom’s calling already! Chanel probably said ‘Mom’s out of jail!’”

Until recently, April hadn’t talked to her mom much. They hadn’t seen each other in years.

For 15 years April was in and out of prison on theft charges. She was stealing to buy cocaine. A few weeks before she was released, we sat in the correctional center cafeteria and she told me about her past. She remembers the first time she got out of prison years ago.

“The first time I got out I had people sending me money and giving me money here (in Hiland), so I saved that money and I went and got high. That’s what I did,” she recalls, matter-of-factly.

April says prison became a revolving door. She didn’t try to get clean, until this nearly 3-year-long stint. After deciding to join the Christian therapy program, she called her mother.

“She basically told me she was tired of me… when was I going to get myself together? I have a daughter. How do I think it makes her feel, with her mom always being in jail?”

She’d heard it all before, but this time it sunk in. April decided to commit herself to TLC, and things changed.

Now my daughter even tells me she loves me. She can’t wait until I get out. And she also said, ‘Mom, I see something very different in you.’” April’s voice cracks with emotion. “It makes me very proud.”

The same hope and enthusiasm are still with her as she sits down for her first meal out: breakfast at Denny’s.

“I want two poached eggs, English muffin, two strips of bacon, and hash browns,” she tells the waitress. Denny’s doesn’t offer her first choice, eggs Benedict, so she’s making an approximation.

In prison she ate rubbery pancakes and boiled eggs. The waitress sets down the plate.

“It looks amazing. Way different! I’ll be stuffing my face now.” And she plunges her fork in.

April Wilson and her mentor Joan Miller on her first day out. Photo by Anne Hillman/KSKA.
April Wilson and her mentor Joan Miller on her first day out. Photo by Anne Hillman/KSKA.

By the end of the meal, the excitement begins to wear off and April’s nerves kick in. We swing by a store to buy Tums before heading to the parole office and the DMV. She’s required to check in with her parole officer within 24 hours of release, and it’s hard to do things without an ID card. It’s all relatively quick. By 10 a.m. we’re at the mall, trying to get a reduced-cost Lifeline phone.

That’s when April hits her first stumbling block. She doesn’t have the right paperwork with her to qualify for the cheaper phone. And after giving the friend she’s staying with $100 to help pay for rent, she has just over $100 to get by on until she gets a job.

“So people just getting out of jail, you guys don’t do Lifelines for that?” she asks the sales clerk, her voice tense with disbelief.

“No, that doesn’t qualify for Lifeline,” he explains. The national program has strict requirements.

“Oh my god. If I buy one of these phones, that’s almost all of my money gone. I don’t have a choice but to do it. I need to get a phone,” April tells Joan, exasperated.

“Can’t you use Sheba’s phone?” Joan says, referencing the friend April is staying with.

“No, because she’s on a certain thing. She can only take a certain amount of calls. And I don’t like to be out nowhere without a phone,” she responds, plaintively.

After some conversation, Joan convinces April she can wait a day for a phone, until she’s had a chance to get the right paperwork from the Department of Public Assistance. By 11 a.m., April is exhausted. She sets her list of errands aside.

“I’m overwhelmed right now. My stomach still feels kind of sick. I thought I could just do everything so fast, you know. I was like, ‘Oh, I can do this? Oh yeah, I can go do that. I’ll be fine.’ Then all the sudden. It just hit me, I’m done for the day. No more.”

On her last stop before heading home, friends from a therapy program give her a gift pack of essentials including a bus pass, a book, a water bottle, and….

“Gum! Gum? Gum!” April says gleefully then opens up the pack. “Man, you don’t get gum. I haven’t had gum in two and a half years, and I’m gonna chew a piece right now!”

During her first week out she reconnects with family, rebuilding connections she hasn’t had in years. She doesn’t have a phone yet, so I keep in touch via Joan, who says she’s in good spirits. Eleven days after her release, Joan picks her up to run some errands before April’s graduation ceremony from TLC at Hiland that night.

“We went to Nordstrom’s and she got a few perfume samples. She loves perfume! And then we went to visit her parole officer.”

And that’s where April’s story takes a different turn. She’s arrested for parole violations and sent back to Hiland where Joan visits her two days later.

Joan says April told her she was on a prescription painkiller for her injured foot but she forgot to bring in proof to show her parole officer. Joan says it was discouraging for both of them.

“She plans to just depend on the Lord and try to stay close to him and try to be patient and just wait and see what happens one day at a time.”

Joan says she hopes April will use the time back in prison to make a better plan so that her next time out is more successful.