Anchorage ‘re-entry walk’ offers glimpse of path out of prison

Standing in the parking lot of the Anchorage Correctional Complex Friday morning, Cathleen McLaughlin instructed the people gathered around her to imagine themselves in someone else’s shoes.

“You don’t have food, you’re coming in to an urban place where you’ve never been before, without an ID, and you have no place to go,” she said. “What are you going to do?”

The situation is a reality for Alaskans around the state, said McLaughlin, director of the nonprofit Partners Reentry Center. When people are released from incarceration — when they step off the blue buses in the parking lot of the Anchorage jail — there are upwards of a dozen steps they might need to take in order to get back on their feet. It can be complicated.

So McLaughlin leads tours to walk community members through the process. Re-entry is more successful when more people know how it works, she said.

“Until you understand what the steps are, you can’t really appreciate some of the barriers people have to healthy release,” she said.

It all starts in the parking lot on Third Avenue.

Anchorage residents walk across Fourth Avenue during a tour led by Partners Re-entry Center on May 24, 2019. (Photo by Kirsten Swann, Alaska Public Media)

“People release in this parking lot just like where we’re standing right now,” McLaughlin told the group of more than a dozen people gathered for a tour May 24. “This is the beginning of an idea freedom for some of the people who are being released from some of the institutions.”

From there, the path winds down Third and Fourth Avenue, with stops at the soup kitchen, the shelter, the public assistance office, the Henry House transitional living facility and the methadone clinic — all the places a person might need to go after their release from jail or prison. Along the route is Partners Reentry Center, a one-story office building where McLaughlin and her staff provide a variety of resources to formerly incarcerated Alaskans.

The entire walk covers nearly four miles of city streets.

McLaughlin has given the tour to politicians and business leaders and community groups. On this particular morning in May, she brought a dozen human resources professionals and health care specialists. Most participants were taking the walk for the first time.

Danielle Wrencher, a mental health clinician at a local treatment center, said she went on the tour because she wanted to experience even a little of what her clients go through. That’s important, she said, because knowing more about the experience helps advocates better serve the people who’ve gone through it.

“People who are coming from jail are often marginalized,” Wrencher said. “Now we’re getting the opportunity to actually walk in their steps.”