Investing in Creativity: Serving Alaska’s Incarcerated Artists

This winter the Alaska State Council on the Arts delivered professional artist business development training to artists incarcerated in the Juneau, Alaska Lemon Creek Correctional Center (LCCC). The four-day intensive training program marked the first time since our establishment in 1967 that we provided this service. The site-specific program, which served twenty-two participants, many of whom are serving long-term sentences, was developed and staffed in partnership with the Sealaska Heritage Institute and the LCCC Educational team. The program also served as a pilot to test its potential for delivery in additional incarceration facilities across the state.

A National Endowment for the Arts Our Town grant which, “supports creative placemaking projects that help to transform communities into lively, beautiful, and resilient places with the arts at their core” underwrote the program. The term “creative placemaking” refers to a process – and encapsulates ASCA’s commitment to cross-sector collaboration – where, “artists, arts organizations, and community development practitioners deliberately integrate arts and culture into community revitalization work – placing arts at the table with land-use, transportation, economic development, education, housing, infrastructure, and public safety strategies which…supports local efforts to enhance the quality of life and opportunity for existing residents, increase creative activity, and create a distinct sense of place”

Lemon Creek Correctional Center artists showing off their carved Alaska Native masks.

Two years ago ASCA completed a rigorous statewide strategic planning process where we clarified our mission and outlined specific goals and objectives for our agency as we strive toward the year 2020. The design and delivery of the LCCC incarcerated artist program targeted and accomplished three of our agency’s desired outcomes.

A dragon, drawn by Lemon Creek Correctional Center inmate Darin Jones

First, we have started to, “develop strong communities by utilizing the arts to address social challenges and celebrate success.” Creativity is a learned behavior. As is destructiveness. The goal of our curriculum is to nurture the development of creativity and professional artist business skills for incarcerated artists. These tools may offer an antidote against internally and externally directed destructiveness and resulting recidivism after their release. One participant wrote in his evaluation, “When is the next class? Let me know, please. Thanks for everything you spoke about. You have been a great help and you really presented with confidence and compassion.” All of the participants asked for more resources, more training and set short and long-term creative and business goals. ASCA staff is scheduled to work on accomplishing these goals with the same group of artist inmates this coming August.

Second we, “provided valuable resources and expertise to State of Alaska Departments and employees.” We were able to provide Paul McCarthy, Alaska Department of Corrections, Lemon Creek Correctional Center Education Coordinator and Assistant Superintendent, Daryl Webster with training resources, workbooks and a network of contacts to support their educational and business development efforts on behalf of incarcerated artists. We were able to share that our program teaches how the creative sector is grounded in professional business standards and ethical practices, legal contracts, and licensing. In kind, we learned a vast amount about Alaska’s correctional system and facilities requirements that will help us better tailor our pilot program and modify our curriculum to match their needs and meet their mission. We also discovered that a prisoner philanthropy program is already in practice at LCCC. Sealaska Inc. provides wood materials for free to incarcerated artists who make one piece to donate to nonprofit fundraisers and a second piece for themselves to sell. The program enables incarcerated artists to earn funds toward restitution and child support and act as meaningful contributors to their families and communities.

ASCA is exploring other prison philanthropy

Alaska Native mask being created by Lemon Creek artist.

models like Philanthropy Roundtable to learn how we might support these already existing efforts in Alaska’s correctional system. We are researching how we may support Alaska’s Community Foundations to serve as a liaison between incarcerated artists and the public. Incarcerated artists could contribute to a legacy endowment, managed by a community foundation, that funds community-directed health and wellness programs that support and protect individuals and families, including children of incarcerated parents, impacted by crime.

Third, “we invested in networks of artists, organizations, and agencies in their work to serve all communities and people of Alaska.” ASCA and SHI staff hosted a cross-sector dialogue to learn more about the respective services and programs we offer and how we can collaborate to maximize our collective impact. We learned about the comprehensive programs offered by multiple agency staff including; Central Council Tlingit Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska Second Chance Reentry Program, Gastineau Human Services Halfway House, Sealaska Corporation Haa Aani Economic Development Spruce Root Community Development Finance Institute, Local Arts Agency Juneau Arts and Humanities Council, the Haa Shagoon Art Shop, Sealaska Heritage Institute Art Programs and Retail Gift Shop and professional artist workshop guest presenters Don Morgan, Gene Chilton, and Sue Follett. Through these conversations, we have connected to even more resources across the state designed to address the needs of inmates reentering their communities like the South Central Foundation’s Family Wellness Warriors program, the Men’s Wellness Initiative, the Anchorage Reentry

The piece by Zachary Pierwola, an inmate at Lemon Creek Correctional Center, references 19th-century Japanese woodblock prints

Coalition and the work of the Alaska Native Justice Center.

A professional peer recently challenged the value of this work by asking, “Why are you supporting incarcerated artists when the needs of Alaska artists, who haven’t done anything wrong, still aren’t fully supported?”

Our response about the value of this work is this. The time, training and relationship building embedded in this program are an investment in all Alaska individuals, families, and communities. This protective and proactive work nurtures individual’s creativity and arts business skills. Incarcerated individuals who are provided these resources are; less vulnerable to criminal recidivism after their release, able to access more expanded employment and earning opportunities to support themselves and their families, better able to maintain financial stability through earned income from their creative work, and empowered to express themselves constructively – rather than destructively – which helps to better maintain sobriety and mental and behavioral health and wellness. This work is about investment rather than expense – a pay it forward model – designed to support all Alaska artists, our families, communities and our state’s invaluable creative sector.

Article by the Alaska State Council on the Arts, April 14 newsletter, reprinted with permission. Photos from

Stories of Reentry: Kara Nelson

Kara Nelson is the Juneau Police Department’s December 2016, Re-Entry Hero and wraps up our Re-Entry Hero series. Nelson has not only overcome her own addiction and family wreckage that came with it but has now dedicated her life to lifting up people in addiction and supporting them in finding long-term recovery. It’s not an easy calling. Over the last few weeks, Nelson has been working to get five different Juneau residents, who are addicted to substances, into treatment. It wasn’t going well. Suddenly, four of them were able to get into treatment in and outside of Juneau. There was no logical reason for that to have happened and Nelson credits divine intervention more than her relentless pursuit of treatment openings.


Even with recent positive developments for several people, treatment still eludes one of the five people looking for help. That is very bad news. Nelson knows that people wanting to quit drugs need support and treatment within that addict’s window of commitment so Nelson is always racing the clock. Often resources are not available and the person returns to using. One incarcerated woman asked Nelson for help because she wanted to go from prison to treatment. The woman knew she couldn’t return to the streets and resist drugs. She was


coming out of prison without even being on probation to help hold her accountable. She knew the pull to use was going to be very strong. Nelson raised the money to get her an assessment in jail, met the woman when she was released, but still lost her to the streets and drugs before a treatment opening could be found. Nelson is an emergency responder who works day and night without compensation even on Christmas, especially on Christmas as it turns out, trying to help people with addictions. Like a lot of emergency responders, Nelson is tormented most by those she can’t help and wants to recruit more people like her to combat addiction.


Nelson has spent the last three years pursuing grants and partnerships so that Juneau can have more people like herself,   people with who have experienced addiction and incarceration, to coach people wanting to recover. Nelson is encouraged by how in the last couple of years she has seen an increasing number of people willing to see former prisoners as people rather than individuals that are anywhere from disposable to frightening. When she first started lobbying for access to drugs that can counteract an overdose, people would say that those people overdosing should be allowed to die as a consequence of making bad decisions. Nelson knew the lives being disregarded so casually included her former self, as she had overdosed several times and just happened to survive.


Nelson spent many years of her life knowing society viewed her as worthless. She echoed that assessment of herself endlessly in her own mind as she sat in jail, watching other men and women do the same. The natural temptation was to put up a wall and to be angry and resentful, withdrawing from society in a mutual rejection. Nelson, eventually, made the decision to accept all that negativity and rely on her faith to give her the strength to prove herself and to then use that earned respect to advocate for others.


Nelson has found allies for her mission she originally did not expect. Nelson credits the Alaska Department of Corrections (DOC) with having probation officers, administrators, and corrections officers, especially in Juneau and at the state level, who are genuine and concrete in their efforts to support former prisoners in being successful on the outside. It’s the lack of resources for support and treatment that Nelson sees as being the largest barrier to her and DOC’s efforts. Right now everyone is doing the best they can with what is available, the equivalent of using floating driftwood to shore up drowning people rather than the needed life-rings, but at least it is something. Nelson is hopeful more resources will become available and that people in Juneau will continue on the path of humanizing people who have suffered from addiction and been incarcerated.


During 2016, Nelson’s schedule involved meeting with the United States Surgeon General prior to the release of his landmark report,  the first-ever national report, about alcohol, drugs, and health. She got to see much of what she was thinking written down and legitimized by people at the very top of the government in that report. It was a time she will never forget and that also illustrates how far she has come from being a homeless addict on the streets of Ketchikan.


Nelson mentioned kindness in her interview at JPD this week, which seemed timely with the kickoff of the Year of Kindness (17YOK), a community effort spearheaded by JPD. While the barriers to helping Nelson’s clients are substantial, she wants the average citizen to know that just offering a moment of kindness to someone suffering with addiction can create an impression that sticks with them, even generating a little hope in that person. Nelson remembers that during her darkest days, sometimes she would be in public and instead of looking away from her contemptuously, a person actually looked at her like they saw a person, not a problem. Sometimes that person


would say ‘Hello’ to her and wish her a good day. Nelson says the hate can just bounce off a person who already hates themselves, but being acknowledged and treated kindly, cuts right through the armor.

Stories of Reentry: Brandi Vrabec

On Thanksgiving Day retired Commissioner of the Department of Public Safety Terry Vrabec posted a family picture. It was similar to holiday pictures posted by millions of people. The Vrabec family photo is different because for many years no one in that family thought Brandi Vrabec, on the far left, would ever be part of a happy family photo again. Brandi’s drug addiction separated her from her family, her values, her confidence, and almost separated her from her life multiple times. Now Brandi has two years and one month in recovery from substance abuse, making the picture you see with this post possible.


The Juneau Police Department’s November Re-Entry Hero is Brandi Vrabec. Brandi is someone you might see around Juneau as she manages a division of a local business or just goes about her errands.  It is very difficult for Brandi to do those things. Brandi has had to overcome crippling social anxiety that makes it hard for her to leave the house some days. The former standout young athlete, in soccer and karate, is affected with anxiety that comes from overwhelming guilt. She is haunted by all the damage she did to others during her


drug addiction. Facing all that guilt while sober has been a challenge but one Brandi is meeting with the help of her housemates at a transitional home, one for women leaving prison, called Haven House.


Brandi came to Juneau as a teenager, when her father became one of the state’s top law enforcement officials. Terry Vrabec talked to JPD about his initial disbelief that a child of his could become a drug addict, after so many opportunities and so much structure. His journey went from disbelief, to trying to help, to refusing to have his only daughter in his home. Terry Vrabec found, to avoid enabling, he even had to refuse to buy groceries for Brandi because she would trade anything for drugs or give resources to her fellow drug users.


Brandi was always an intelligent girl, and graduated high school even while using alcohol and other drugs regularly. A rare instinct for self- preservation told her to avoid the prescription painkillers that were readily available when she was in high school. At that time, those pills had no anti-crush chemicals in them and could easily be turned into powder and snorted. Brandi estimated that on leaving Juneau for Washington she knew 40 people using and addicted to prescription painkillers.


Brandi did well in Washington for a while. She was in sales and advancing professionally on a fast track. Then she and her boyfriend let a friend from Juneau come and stay with them. That friend was using and dealing prescription painkillers. Brandi developed a habit of using four to five pills a day at $50 per pill. At first, her sales numbers at work went up. She felt confident and capable. Brandi thought no one knew what was going on but she admits now she was fooling herself. Once she started stealing from her employer it did not take long for her to become unemployed and homeless.


Brandi and her boyfriend were taken in by her aunt. Brandi stole property from her aunt, items like jewelry purchased by her aunt’s deceased husband. Brandi had moved back to Fairbanks by the time her aunt discovered the level of betrayal. Her aunt was hospitalized over her distress. Brandi’s mother scrambled to find and buy back items but the level of damage done could not be undone.


When Brandi got back to Fairbanks she turned 21. She got deep into the party scene and did not stay away from opiates for very long.

About the time she first used heroin, she was in a serious car accident. The accident was the other driver’s fault so the incident not only led to long and robust access to prescription painkillers, she also received a settlement of $132,000 dollars.


Brandi and her then boyfriend went through the first $50,000 installment in about a month. She had collected her settlement in all cash. About two months after the first check, Brandi received another

$82,000 and she had a plan for that money. She had been listening to music that glorified drug dealing and watching shows that did the same. Brandi decided to use the money to set herself up in what she thought was the glamorous life of a drug dealer. Brandi got a purse she thought fit the image, she suspects it might have been fur- trimmed with a gold-chain shoulder strap, and put all of her cash into it. She moved to Anchorage and started her business.


Brandi soon discovered that the life she envisioned in Anchorage wasn’t happening. The drug-dealing world was not glamorous. It was ugly, violent, and there were no rules. When Brandi would use drugs, her ‘friends’ would rob her once she nodded off. She would call her father and complain someone stole thousands of dollars from her.

Terry Vrabec had nearly convinced Brandi to let him put the money in a trust for her and she refused at the last minute. He was not


sympathetic to her complaints about how unethical people were being toward her.


When Brandi got to the end of her money she went back to   Fairbanks. That was when the felony charges started. Her father, like most law enforcement officers, dreads the middle of the night calls to tell him about a public safety emergency. He learned to dread, even more, calls from or about Brandi. One event that caused an Alaska State Trooper Commander to call Terry Vrabec involved Brandi being high and struggling with a store employee over a jacket she was stealing. The people responsible for the store locked her in. The Troopers, most of whom knew her as a child through her father, responded with a K-9. The dog did not find Brandi because she had crawled into the ceiling. When she fell out of the ceiling she was taken into custody.


Terry Vrabec got a call one night to tell him Brandi, who had felony warrants out for her arrest by then, was over-dosing at a home. The person was afraid Brandi was going to die. He persuaded the person to provide the address and sent Troopers to that home. Brandi remembers that when the Troopers arrived her ‘friends’, other drug addicts, shoved her out of the house as fast as they could to get the Troopers to leave. Brandi remembers how mad she was at her Dad then, but now realizes that night, plus over a year in jail, ultimately saved her life and put her on another path.


After a 14 month stretch in jail, Brandi was sober, had found faith- based treatment, and was afraid to leave prison. She had become institutionalized. Brandi was comfortable in prison, knew she could remain sober there, there were enforced rules, and she felt safe for the first time in a long while. Brandi’s brother and mother had heard about Haven House and spent hours talking to Director Kara Nelson. Nelson flew to Anchorage to meet with Brandi and convinced her to


give Haven House a chance. Brandi’s brother, Tommy Vrabec, lives in Juneau and goes to ‘family’ gatherings at Haven House. He is a big supporter and cheerleader for his sister. While Brandi jokes about never living anywhere but Haven House, she is starting to think about her future.


Brandi wants to spend the rest of her life in service to others. She is considering something along the lines of Peace Corp or missionary work. Brandi now wants to see the world and help others. She is particularly interested in helping children, possibly teaching. JPD believes Brandi will achieve just that.