FAIRBANKS — Filling gaps in prisoner re-entry and transitional housing is the goal of a 14-month-old Fairbanks organization.
Southside Reentry Center, run by No Limits Inc., offers 10 to 15 beds, depending on the season, for people exiting the correctional system.
The gray, three-story building in the industrial area of South Fairbanks is a work in process: Water pipes froze the first winter, a commons is being renovated in the basement and additional rooms are being prepared for female tenants.
No Limits president and founder Kelvin Lee said almost all his tenants have struggled with alcohol in their past. The center doesn’t cater specifically to alcoholics, but alcohol, being intoxicated and drug use are not allowed on the premise.
Regardless of addiction, health care providers often say appropriate transitional services are severely lacking for people re-entering society.
“We want folks when they come to No Limits to feel safe in a sober living environment,” Lee, a certified drug counselor, said.
Lee knowns people leaving jail are going to make mistakes, and his no-alcohol policy is not zero-tolerance. In the past, he has worked with harm-
reduction models that allow people to continue drinking, which he said can be appropriate for long-term alcoholics.
But to some extent, “I believe if you’re gonna do it (become sober), you just gotta do it,” Lee said.
Funding for re-entry beds on the first floor is partially offset by six apartments primarily for hard-to-place families and individuals on the second story. Lee occupies one of the apartments.
Lacking necessary certifications to be considered a treatment facility, Southside strictly works on re-entry — many of the tenants are on parole or wear ankle monitors.
Southside’s model most closely resembles a halfway house. Halfway houses take people who are finishing or about to serve prison sentences and who are referred by court order or judgment agreements.
The main difference is halfway houses have contracts with the Alaska Department of Corrections. At Southside, tenants are responsible for $400 per month rent, which, at a minimum, includes dinner. Lee expects people to get a job, keep their rooms clean and assist with chores. Lee’s not strict with rent the first few months.
One disadvantage of a halfway house, according to Lee, is that people view it as an extension of the corrections system, prolonging the re-entry transition. In contrast, Lee said Southside is an extra step removed from prison, making community reintegration that much easier.
The affable Lee wore a suite and tie while speaking in his dimly lit office, which doubles as the center’s entryway. As he talks, Lee often references faith and uses his hands to illustrate the twisted path tenants find themselves on. He encourages each person to take responsibility.
“Each one, teach one; if I make it, you make it,” he said, adding that his treatments are behavior-based, “If he don’t change his behavior, his life’s not gonna change.”
It wasn’t until Lee found a sense of responsibility — helping others — that he was able to overcome his own addiction to crack cocaine. Lee spent 15 years in prison for drugs and armed robbery before bouncing in and out of treatment facilities in Anchorage.
“(I) got it when they stopped yelling at me and said, ‘Go help someone else,’” he said.
The average length of stay at Southside Reentry Center has been 83 days. The goal is to double that to at least six months.
Ego and an inability to recognize their problems are a major stumbling block for people recently released from jail, according to Lee. Users would “rather go back to jail than say ‘I don’t know what I’m doing,’” he said.
And go back to jail is what happens all too often. The six-month recidivism rate in Fairbanks is 84 percent, part of the reason for Lee’s six-month retention goal.
Unfortunately, “Six months doesn’t overcome 20 years of using,” he said.
Bert Coates has spent five months at Southside. Originally from Barrow, Coates already has a lease for one of the apartments and sees himself spending “a few years” at the location.
Coates, 38, started drinking after his grandfather died of cancer. He even continued in jail by making home-brew. While incarcerated, Coates became disillusioned with drinking and wanted to change. He said he’s been sober a year and half and is in treatment at the nearby Ralph Perdue Center. Coates said he doesn’t feel any societal pressure to drink at this point in his life.
If tenants exhibit bad or destructive behavior, Lee isn’t one to coddle them. He lets them go, instead focusing on people who make an effort to change.
Southside Reentry Center tries to bestow responsibilities and freedom on tenants — if they make it through the first 30 to 90 days. But for the initial months, “Do what we ask you to do,” Lee said.
Coates had just been released from Goose Creek Correctional Center in Anchorage when his probation officer told him about Southside. Wanting to leave the coastal climate, Coates met Lee and Suzan Hathaway, the No Limits executive director, in Anchorage before traveling north.
Now Coates fills his days with assigned chores at the center, group meetings, treatment and preparing to find a job.
“I think ... take it one day at a time, it’ll get easier. I try to just take it one day at a time,” Coates said.
Contact staff writer Robin Wood at 459-7510. Reporting for the Daily News-Miner’s expanded coverage of efforts to reduce alcohol abuse in Alaska is supported financially by the Recover Alaska Media Project fund at the Alaska Community Foundation. Contributors to the fund are the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, Mat-Su Health Foundation, Southcentral Foundation, Rasmuson Foundation, Providence Health & Services Alaska, and Doyon, Limited. The News-Miner has sole responsibility for the selection and execution of the stories produced for this project.