Recovery Takes a Community, by Jim Musser

My name is William James Musser V, and I am in long-term recovery from substance use disorder.

For me, this means that I have not used drugs or alcohol for an extended period of time, 33 months. To understand why I need recovery, you first need to understand my use. I started when I was 13 years old, probably for reasons like childhood trauma, trying to fit in, and it running in my family.

As time went on, I moved onto harder and harder drugs and using more and more. I could never see it myself, but drugs were affecting my life a great deal. Subsequently I dropped out of school and got my G.E.D. and I became a felon, entering the revolving door of going to jail, getting out of jail, being put on probation, then using drugs and being put back in jail. This cycle would continue over and over again until eventually I finished my entire prison sentence and was fully released. However, I still continued to abuse drugs and alcohol.

I began creating a successful career in caregiving, and working full time. I got hurt, and was one of the many who get prescribed painkillers. These ran out and I found that I could purchase OxyContin on the streets, which quickly took control of my life. Once they stopped becoming available I switched to heroin, eventually bringing me to my knees, and about to lose everything I had worked for.

By some miracle, I sought out treatment at Lakeview Health in Jacksonville, Florida, saving my life. I went straight into sober living for six months and was taught all the different ways people were staying clean, like 12-steps, SMART Recovery, counseling, religion, community involvement, service work, sports, fitness, clubs, yoga, meditation, art classes, and much more. I’m so glad that I tried everything through that program because I got to see what tools worked for me, and was able to tailor them to my specific needs.

For the most part I’ve stuck with these same tools, but I still like to switch it up from time to time to keep myself growing. For example, I’ve got to experience the services offered by recovery communities in three different states and bring some of that knowledge back to Juneau, which could greatly benefit from their example. Here our services have not quite caught up with much of the nation. It will take quite a bit of time to get similar programs running in our community, but I truly believe Juneau is on its way to providing up-to-date recovery options. We have so many amazing people who are both in recovery from substance use disorder and those who are just supporters trying to make this happen.

Today I am in my 11th year as a caregiver for individuals with mental and physical disabilities. I’m switching careers to be a chemical dependency counselor and am currently a technician. I hold the following service positions: President of Southeast Alaska Fatherhood Alumni Association, Recovery Coach Certification from NCADD, Co-chair for Peer Support for the Juneau Reentry Coalition, 12-Step Area Service Position, and Board Member of Great Bear Recovery Collective.

It takes a community coming together to take on a challenge this big. The push continues and I encourage everyone to get involved because at some point everyone will be affected by substance use disorder. There is a lot of stigma and I hope that people open their hearts and understand that many good people are suffering because of their use, making bad choices because drugs have hijacked their brains and bodies. If they can get clean and get the help they need, then they can be amazing members of this community. To those of you who are still struggling: I can relate to what you’re going through, and I made it out, for now. Substance use disorder will be something that we recover from for our entire lives. We will never be cured. But we can stop using the things that are destroying our lives and find a new way. Many people showed me the way and we can help show you. Don’t ever give up, there is always hope.

Jim Musser’s My Turn was printed in the Juneau Empire on Sunday, September 9, 2018.  Jim is Co-chair of the JREC Peer Support Workgroup.  

Bringing purpose and hope through partnership

‘Farm  to prison’

Lemon Creek Correctional Center looks to expand prison garden to feed inmates, community

In a twist on the popular farm to table movement that has swept the country, with restaurants and cities promoting ways to bring fresh-from-the-dirt produce directly to consumers, state prisons are experimenting with ways to bring produce grown by inmates to their own kitchens and even out into the community.

These “farm to prison” programs are popping up in states as far-flung as California and Vermont, with inmates growing thousands of pounds of potatoes, carrots, beets and even apples to feed themselves and to donate to food banks.

That’s the dream of a dedicated band of staff members and inmates at Lemon Creek Correctional Center, with the help of the Juneau Reentry Coalition.

Oldtimers might remember that decades ago, LCCC had a garden and a large potato field.

More recently, there were two greenhouses with water and power on pads in front of the prison, but those blew down in a windstorm and were not replaced.

But the Prison Garden Project is aiming to change that, with an ambitious multi-phase plan that started with revitalizing its existing, smaller greenhouse and, eventually, resurrecting the potato field and the larger greenhouses with a view to generate income by selling flowers and starts, and help feed the community.

Expanding the garden at Lemon Creek seemed like the perfect project to take on, explained Teri Tibbett, who is a member of the steering committee for the reentry coalition, as well as the advocacy coordinator for the Alaska Mental Health Board and Advisory Board on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse.

After all, she said, Alaska Department of Corrections Commissioner Dean Williams talked extensively during the legislative

session about fostering meaningful activity such as getting gardening.

Education coordinator Kris Weixelman had been managing the greenhouse donated to the prison by the Rotary Club in 2012, with the idea of making it an educational tool for inmates. Last year, she had a small group of inmates working in the garden; with all the sun that graced Juneau that summer, she laughed, “everything we planted worked — every seed sprouted.”

But, Weixelman explained, the garden project needed some help, with tools desperately needed to improve the sandy, rocky soil in the outside beds, as well as gear to extend the growing season inside the greenhouse.

After a discussion with Tibbett, Weixelman put together a wish list, and the reentry coalition donated $1,000 to the garden project, which was spent at Home Depot to buy items that included soil, fertilizer, seeds and equipment such as sprayers, grow lights and faucet timers.

But, Tibbett noted, the garden still needs “a whole bunch of stuff,” including a tiller. To that end, she has  launched

a GoFundMe page for Phase Two of the garden project, preparing the front lot of the larger garden for potatoes.

By next spring, the garden project hopes to be ready to plant the front lot and even, possibly, replace the two missing greenhouses in front.

“Right now, the greenhouse has some tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers going,” Weixelman said during a visit to the prison garden earlier this week. “We want to get more going this winter. We have a hydroponic system, and lettuce is easy to grow.”

The inmates involved in the garden have been busy lately digging rocks out of the outside beds and ameliorating the poor soil with compost, she said, adding, “We’ve got it looking good now.”

Weixelman recently acquired some worms for the garden, laughing that “Anytime I can get something free, I’ll take it.”

The inmates who participate in the garden really get into it, she said.

“It’s fun to watch them get so excited, getting in the dirt, like ‘Look! We have a tomato! It’s growing!’”

The goal of the Prison Garden Project, says Tibbett, is to provide a meaningful, productive activity for inmates that will also be good for the community.

Gardening can give the inmates life skills to help them transition to the outside world, she said, as well as practical job skills that could translate into employment in the landscaping business.

“It gives them a purpose — and hope,” said Kara Nelson of Haven House, one of the co- chairs of the reentry coalition.

“The biggest word is hope,” said DOC Security Sgt. Ron Shriver, another co-chair.

“Recidivism is such a huge problem in Alaska,” Shriver says, adding, “Individuals keep coming back because they feel like there is nothing for them.”

“The coalition is trying to create an environment where there is hope for a better future,” he explained. “It doesn’t do anyone any good to sit in their cell 23 hours a day. If we engage the individual, we can provide them with some hope, provide some skills and teach them to give back to the community. That gives them a sense of purpose, a sense of satisfaction.”

Giving back gives them the ability to heal  from the guilt caused by their actions, he says

— to “shed a good light” on themselves.

Shriver point to the success of a flower garden at Hiland Mountain  Correctional

Center in Eagle River, saying he hopes Lemon Creek can offer starts and flowers in the spring, and generate some revenue so the garden can be more self-sustaining .

“I’m really excited about what we can do in the future,” he said.

Weixelman said she would love to get so successful that the garden is able to donate produce to the Glory Hole, for example.

“If you can do this, not only can you feed yourself, you can feed other people,” she said. “That’s a pretty powerful statement, to be able to feed your family.”

Shriver said only a small group of inmates is involved at present, but he hopes to get as many involved as possible.

Weixelman put out a call and got a list of 80 inmates who were interested; she has whittled that down somewhat, to about 50, she said.

“It gives (the inmates) a good opportunity,” she said. “Everyone gets that chance, to do something right and be good. This can motivate people.”

One inmate who just got involved was constantly getting written up, Weixelman said, adding, “He came out and worked  hard

— it’s a good  start.”

Nelson, who makes no secret of her own stint in prison, said many inmates just want a  sense of  purpose and  something that can give them a sense of ownership.

Rocky Stiers and David Guthrie, two Lemon Creek inmates currently involved in the  Prison Garden Project, agree wholeheartedly.

Stiers, who proudly shows off a blister on his palm caused by digging out rocks from the garden beds, sees working in the garden as helping give the prison inmates a good name.

“Here at Lemon Creek, we’ve got a stigma,” he said. “Everyone thinks we’re drug addicts and losers.”

Working in the garden is a concrete form of rehabilitation, he says, rather than just “warehousing” people.

“A lot of the guys here, they’ve never had a job,” Stiers said. “This teaches them a work ethic.”

Guthrie says just the physical act of being outside and away from the noise and turmoil of the prison dorm is therapeutic.

And, he added, “Being responsible for growing something, that’s exciting.”

Guthrie said checking on his plants and keeping a log of what they did was a “cool learning process.”

“I lost a lot of peppers,” he said ruefully. “It’s trial and error.”

“A lot of error,” interjected Stiers with a laugh.

“It keeps me out of trouble,” Guthrie concluded.

Learning to be responsible for something is a big step, Stiers said.

“Just being motivated, having the drive to do something, it’s healthy — and getting away from all the drama … is a reprieve,” he said. “And being able to enjoy the fruits of our labor. It sounds cliché, but it is really therapeutic — it’s good for you mentally and physically, and I suppose spiritually.”

Getting enough money to start the potato field and the two new greenhouses would be a true blessing, Stiers said.

“It gives people a reason to be good, to help others and help ourselves at the same time,” he said.

Posted August 20, 2017 06:01 am – Updated

August 20, 2017 07:57 am

By LIZ KELLAR, Juneau Empire

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