People around the United States who are leaving prison all face similar challenges. Sometimes it’s harder to find work or a place to live when you have a criminal history. But some people from rural Alaska face a unique barrier: their conditions of parole prevent them from going home.
Stanley Mute arrives 15 minutes early for the interview, his black hair dyed even darker to conceal any hints of grey. He’s uncertain about getting his point across.
“English is real hard for me. That’s my secondary language,” he explains, stumbling over some words. “My words don’t really come out like how you wanna hear. But I do speak in my language real good.”
Mute taught himself to draw when he was in prison. At first he just decorated envelopes because he was bored and sold them for $1 apiece to get money for coffee. Then other prisoners started requesting larger drawings to send home and paying extra to get them sooner.
Mute’s first language is Yup’ik. He’s from the coastal village of Kongiganak. What he can’t communicate through words, he can through his art. He taught himself to draw when he was in prison. At first he just decorated envelopes because he was bored and sold them for $1 apiece to get money for coffee. Then other prisoners started requesting larger drawings to send home and paying extra to get them sooner.
Mute says all of the images, which range from hunters in kayaks to cartoons of animals, come from his imagination and stories he’s been told. “I replay them in my mind and start drawing them how I heard the stories.”
Mute picks up a copy of his favorite drawing — a Yup’ik dancer.
Thousands of tiny strokes of varying shades of green radiate from the figure.
“He does everything,” he says of his imaginary dancer. “Helping out people. Encouraging other people.”
“It’s like he’s jumping from the light. And dancing in the light,” I say, giving my own interpretation.
“Yeah,” Mute agrees. “That’s what happy people do. Right?”
Mute’s question isn’t rhetorical. He isn’t sure. After nearly 20 years in prison for sexual assault, he’s struggling to make it in Anchorage, a city he’s never lived in before. He’s required to stay here to receive alcohol abuse and sex-offender treatment, but at 51 years old, he doesn’t have the skills to make it in the city. He’s trying to not worry about what’s happening to his family and friends back in the village and things he can’t control.
“I worry about how am I going to live? How am I going to start doing what normal people do?”
Marlin Sookiayak asks himself similar questions. In Anchorage, he’s working as a janitor at the place where he lives. Back home in Shaktoolik, before he pleaded guilty and went to jail for incest in 2011, he was a welder, a commercial fisherman, and a community leader. Before he can go back, he has to finish his treatment.
“The treatment I receive here in Anchorage is an hour and a half a week, six hours a month, and 72 hours a year. That’s what it boils down to.”
What Sookiayak and others are asking is, why can’t he do that treatment from home? He’s been offered a job there by the mayor.
“It’s hard being here in Anchorage, away from my family, the people I love, my relations, when I could be doing a lot more back home and providing for the people I love so much over there.”
Recidivism rates for Alaska Natives are 10 percent higher than for the offender population as a whole.
It's a very tough balance: keeping someone in a community where it's going to be difficult for them to succeed versus sending them back to a community where potentially they are just as dangerous as they were when they left.
Rebecca Brunger, the operations manager for the Probation and Parole Division of the Department of Corrections, says the barriers for people wanting to go back to their villages are very real, but the department also must consider the needs of victims.
“It’s a very tough balance: keeping someone in a community where it’s going to be difficult for them to succeed versus sending them back to a community where potentially they are just as dangerous as they were when they left, or maybe more dangerous.”
Research shows sex-offender treatment does reduce recidivism for sexual and nonsexual crimes, but it’s more effective when it’s tailored to the needs of the individual offenders.
Re-entry advocates say current sex-offender treatment methods aren’t adapted for Alaska Native cultures and rely on confrontational models that aren’t culturally appropriate. One Yup’ik treatment program does exist in Bethel, but it’s extremely small.
Director of Probation and Parole Carrie Belden says offenders need to get treatment before going back or they won’t be successful.
“We can’t take a person who is unhealthy at that time and put them back into the community they just came from in the exact same situation without tools in their tool box and expect something different.”
The Department of Corrections doesn’t have the resources to make sex offender or other types of treatment available throughout the state, but they are looking into telemedicine options.
For people like Stanley Mute, the time can’t come soon enough. After our interview, he violated the conditions of his parole and is back in prison. Before he went back, he said he had one major goal.
“All I want to do is probably go back to my village, and that’s where I should be. I mean, get old there.”
He wants to hunt, pick berries, and spend time doing the subsistence activities he draws images of but hasn’t done himself since 1995.