Almost 15 percent of Seward’s year-round population lives behind the security doors and barbed wire at Spring Creek Correctional Center. Fully four hundred of Seward’s 2,700 residents are prisoners, many serving sentences for violent crimes.
Of those men, a number have adopted a new outlook that rejects both the violence of their past and what they call a purely punitive philosophy of punishment that for a long time shaped the character of Alaska’s only maximum security prison.
On Monday night, the two worlds on either side of the prison walls converged for a town hall meeting hosted by the Spring Creek Restorative Justice Initiative (RJI), an inmate group dedicated to the alternative outlook on corrections and spearheaded by Warden Bill Lapinskas.
Lapinskas has embarked on a drastic overhaul of Spring Creek, permitting a wide range of activities – from yoga and woodworking, to dog training and endurance running – while also toning down the use of solitary confinement and other punitive measures.
Thirty-five inmates joined around 25 visitors for a roundtable discussion on crime and punishment, justice and corrections. Liberty Miller, a volunteer at the prison, served as the evening’s emcee.
The Restorative Justice Initiative draws on a theory of crime and society that rejects retribution as the main aim of criminal justice. A pamphlet distributed at the open house said that “restorative justice seeks not only to restore and heal victims, but also restore the offender as a contributing member of his or her community” by “addressing the human causes and consequences of criminal behavior.”
The inmates who attended Monday night’s open house were a mixture of RJI members and others, Lapinskas said, and many spoke up about the transformation wrought in their own lives by the transformation at Spring Creek.
Some emphasized the fact that prisoners eventually return to civilian life – but often lack the skills and support to adapt to that life and end up back in prison.
Nicholas Showers-Glover, 33, is serving a lengthy sentence for murder. Showers-Glovers described his crime as “20 seconds of a bad decision” for which he took responsibility. But he also takes responsibility for his attitude now and his impact on the men around him.
“In that long sentence, I’ve got two choices,” he said. “I can get super bitter and take every guy that comes in here and I can make him super bitter and send him out to terrorize your community. Or I can try to make him a better man than I was.”
Some floated ideas about how to prevent crime by intervening in the lives of young people growing up in circumstances similar to their own.
Keane Crawford, 38, a participant in the running group and a standing seminar on morals and ethics, suggested teaching ethics to students as early as possible. Crawford was convicted of murder in a 2008 shooting in Anchorage.
Many inmates lauded Lapinskas, who sat quietly taking in the stories of the men under his charge and the questions of visitors. Lapinskas served as a correctional officer at Spring Creek for two decades before taking over as warden and spoke up only at the very end of the meeting.
“For twenty years our motto was, ‘Everybody went home safe and all the keys are accounted for,’” Lapinskas said. “That’s not good enough.”