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Spring Creek opens its doors

As he and his fellow inmates restored gravestones for the historic Woodlawn cemetery just outside of Seward, Nick Showers-Glover said they found themselves tearing up.

“The men all making these headstones have been convicted of murder, but we were in tears making a headstone for a baby that lived just three days,” Showers-Glover said. “We knew that we needed to do this.”

Showers-Glover was just one of many inmates to speak about the different programs offered at Spring Creek Correctional Center at Monday night’s open town hall meeting in the facility’s visiting room. The event invited members of the public to the maximum security prison to have an open discussion about the center’s restorative justice initiative, criminal justice and how these issues affect the surrounding community.

“Things like this are scary to a superintendent,” said Spring Creek’s Superintendent Bill Lapinskas. “To open your doors and have people come in and judge what you’re doing, but we’ve been putting more and more of the people first. What are we doing at Spring Creek? Whatever we have to turn out a better person.” 

Last year, Lapinskas and the inmates worked to create the Restorative Justice Initiative, to fight high recidivism rates and help the inmates become better people. 

Restorative justice focuses on rehabilitating those impacted by crime and behavior rather than retribution for the crime itself. By working with the victim, the offender and the community, restorative justice hopes to heal victims while helping the offender return to society as a contributing member of the community.

“It’s asking what role does the community play,” said prisoner Matt Moore, one of the Restorative Justice Initiative’s three co-chairs. “Because no person is left untouched by this process, even if it’s just because your tax dollars go to locking these guys up.”

Moore and other inmates explained during the meeting that it is important to focus on what happens when prisoners are released, to change the conversation from punishment to rehabilitation.

“On the fringes of society is where recidivism lives and that’s where you end up, what happens when you get out and aren’t accepted in society,” Moore said.

So far, the Restorative Justice Initiative has brought yoga, health and fitness, ethics and reasoning and more to the inmates — exercising both their minds and bodies to help when the time comes to transition back into the public.

“We’re trying to create better prisoners, to show them that there’s benefits to being a better person,” said Anthony Garcia, who teaches a weekly moral and ethics class to his fellow inmates. “It’s all about building character, building a good moral foundation because without training like that, you get out of here an old, bitter prisoner.”

On Mondays and Saturdays, correctional officer Justin Ennis leads a running group around the yard, teaching techniques, skills and pushing the inmates to push themselves in races.

“Running is medicine,” said King David, an inmate set to be released later this year. “I like running, I enjoy it now. I used to box in the streets but this is better.”

And thanks to the running club, David has a milestone to achieve after his release. Ennis told him that is he stays away from drugs after his release from Spring Creek, the two will run a half marathon in Anchorage together this January.

“It’s not ‘if I’m clean,’ it’s ‘when I’m clean’ in January,” David said. “I’ve always wanted to stay sober, I just didn’t have anything holding me accountable. Running does that.”

Those outside of the prison have also contributed to the Restorative Justice Initiative, including Altra Running Shoes, who donates shoes to the running club, or The Fish House in Seward, who donated boots for the prisoners who work with dogs to prepare them for adoption.

There are also community volunteers, like Liberty Miller, who has been volunteering at Spring Creek since May and helped organize Monday night’s event. Miller’s brother was murdered and she said that volunteering at the prison has been a cathartic way to heal, a chance to practice forgiveness.

“These guys understand that we’re experiencing something together, from different sides of it,” Miller said. “I want to thank them for being so good to me and changing my life.”

Moving forward, there are a lot of things on Spring Creek’s agenda.

“Cliqued Up,” a podcast produced by inmates focusing on the evolution of a prisoner, will be released on Dec. 1. Showers-Glover hopes to replace all of the wooden headstones at Woodlawn Cemetery with new, cement ones. More inmates will continue on the receive their GED and others will continue to create art and jewelry for sale at events throughout the Seward area.

Most importantly though, the inmates at Spring Creek Correctional Center are hoping to continue their conversation with the community,

“It’s not just about being nice to us, it’s looking at us as people. It helps,” said Garcia. “It’s about doing what’s right for the community. You put a person with morals, ethics and character out there and he’s a better person than when he came in. If you don’t, the community suffers.”