WASILLA — A small group of people dedicated to shutting down opiate abuse in Alaska have a big dream for the Point Mackenzie Correctional Farm.
“I think it has amazing potential, and it would be perfect for an ambulatory detox,” said Michelle Overstreet, executive director for MY House, a nonprofit for homeless youth.
On Wednesday, March 30, Overstreet and other members of an informal Mat-Su opiate task force toured the 600-acre farm located about 5 miles from the Goose Creek Correctional Facility. The farm currently produces about 2 million pounds of potatoes a year, plus millions more in broccoli, bok choy, apples, carrots, cauliflower, beef, pork, eggs and more.
Mat-Su Regional Medical Center emergency doctor Michael Alter, another member of the task force, was as impressed as Overstreet with the farm.
“This facility can do everything, and it’s not in anybody’s backyard,” Alter said.
The farm is run by 35-40 Goose Creek inmates under farm manager Adam Boyd, a private contractor for the Department of Corrections (DOC). Though the farm and the prison are considered one entity under the DOC, the farm has considerably less security — just a two-foot-tall wooden post fence separates the workers and livestock from the wilderness and the open road.
Farm and correctional center superintendent John Conant said the risk of a prisoner escaping is slim, for a couple of reasons.
“This is a privilege to these guys,” Conant said at a separate tour of the farm on Friday. “They’d much rather be out here than at Goose Creek.”
Conant said the farmer-inmates are all nearing the end of their sentences when they come to work on the farm, and are usually doing time for lower level crimes (those convicted of arson or sex crimes are ineligible for the program, he said).
Such inmates, once deemed fit for work, used to come to live on the farm in dorm-like housing. That was until 2014, when the DOC decided to combine staffing between the prison and the farm to cut costs. Now no one sleeps in the 128 beds on the property.
That’s where MY House and the Mat-Su opiate task force come in.
Hatching a plan
About a year ago, MY House corresponded with the Florida-based company Solace International about its community-supported agriculture (CSA) project, Solace Organic Farms. The idea was to use the Florida farm’s business model of growing sustainable food sources and facilitating job training as a jumping off point for MY House to create its own organic farm for homeless — and jobless — youth in the Mat-Su Valley.
Once the local business plan was established, land became the primary issue.
Overstreet said she discussed using a large chunk of Point Mackenzie property with a private landowner, but the deal eventually fell through. Overstreet wanted to make the farming opportunities available to youth age 18-24 who had struggled with drug abuse, but relatives of the landowner did not, she said.
But the need still exists. Overstreet said more than half of MY House clients report leaving home due to a family member’s abuse of drugs or alcohol, domestic violence, or both. Sometimes those clients fall into addiction themselves. That addiction often removes motivation and ability to go to school or work.
Overstreet said MY House has witnessed many young people get clean for a short period of time, only to relapse days or weeks later. The August 2015 closing of the Wasilla methadone clinic didn’t help matters, she said, as youth who were receiving treatment went straight back to their drug of choice.
Though the City of Wasilla’s planning commission voted to allow a new methadone clinic and a new drug and alcohol counseling center in January, MY House and the fledgling Mat-Su opiate task force wanted more options for addicts.
“We have to create pathways to detox so that addicts are not forced to steal, deal and generally break the law to get their needs met. While we understand that there will always be those who choose the stealing option, the research is clear that many, many will get clean and stay clean if offered another option,” Overstreet wrote.
In the last month or so, MY House has sponsored some of those options, such as the local peer-to-peer support programs Fiend2Clean and Alaska’s Young People in Recovery, a chapter of a national advocacy organization based in Colorado. But neither of those efforts has yet been able to address the work problem — giving recovering addicts the responsibility of a job and the skills needed to do that job properly.
However, if MY House could partner with the DOC and other related agencies at the existing Point Mackenzie farm, perhaps everyone involved could kill two — or more — birds with one stone.
Overstreet said that, ideally, addicts could work on the farm instead of being imprisoned, rather than simultaneously serving jail time at Goose Creek and farming during the waking hours.
When arrested for a drug-related crime, addicts would appear in court and be referred to a detoxification facility, preferably one housed in the Point Mackenzie farm’s two currently empty 10-12-bed houses near the entrance. After a 7-day detox, recovering addicts would be prescribed Vivitrol, a new drug that is taken less frequently and is reportedly less addictive than other opioid replacement drugs, such as methadone. Vivitrol would make the patient able to live and work on the farm, whether that be in the potato fields and greenhouses or with chicken and livestock. (Overstreet and the task force has also discussed developing a for-profit bakery with the commercial kitchen already onsite.)
Finally, the worker would be referred to an aftercare provider — such as MY House — for help finding housing and a regular civilian job back in his or her community, as well as resources to stay clean.
“This whole idea is predicated on the community understanding that addiction is a disease, and that we generally don’t jail people for disease (like diabetes, arthritis, etc),” Overstreet wrote.
While Conant said the farm has the capacity for expansion and potential for partnership with outside organizations (DOC has a longstanding relationship with the Food Bank of Alaska, for example, which last year received almost 95,000 pounds of potatoes from the farm), there are some significant barriers to the Mat-Su task force’s plan.
As it stands, the farm would not be able to house active inmates and detox patients and post-detox workers diverted to the farm instead of prison. Additional security measures would have to be put in place — such as a taller, less penetrable fence or wall between the detox houses and the dorm-style housing, Overstreet suggested — for DOC to be involved.
With an already low budget, Conant said, it seems unlikely DOC would be able to fund such a venture in the near future.
Gov. Bill Walker’s Mat-Su office director Sarah Heath, who has also been involved with the opiate task force, said she sees money as one of the biggest roadblocks to the project as well.
“I don’t think the bureaucratic aspect is going to be as challenging as the financial aspect,” she said at MY House after the farm tour on Wednesday. “We don’t need a task force to create recommendations for legislators to review, they need the ability to implement them.”
That ability is largely dictated by money. Heath said there may be ways to obtain funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other federal sources, but Overstreet isn’t convinced that would be the most sustainable way to pay for the project. Medicaid would hopefully support the treatment of addicts at the farm, she said, but non-state and federal money may be more reliable in addressing operational costs in the future.
“I think we’re gonna see nonprofits falling by the wayside because of the depletion of federal and state grants,” she said.
A new hope?
Whether the Point Mackenzie Correctional Farm is the place to implement the Mat-Su opiate task force’s re-entry program ideas or not, DOC Special Assistant to the Commissioner II Phil Cole encouraged the group not to give up on the dream.
“Right here at MY House there’s come together a group of people with the ability to dream,” Cole said after the Wednesday tour. “My message to them is to not limit their vision.”
Governor Bill Walker also said in an interview with the Frontiersman on Thursday that the general idea of building skills and creating jobs for recovering addicts and criminals was a good one.
“My philosophy is that the best cure for a lot of social ills is a job,” Walker said.
The earlier the addict or criminal starts working, the better the results, he said.
“We need to start it while they’re incarcerated, so when they come out, they’ve been through that period of rehabilitation.”
Walker said the state currently has $30 million in its operating budget for “recovery institutions,” which he said he believed would directly benefit the Mat-Su Valley.
Beyond that, Walker said he and his administration would be looking at “everything that can be done” to address the opiate epidemic and possible solutions.
“We have some pretty skimpy budgets these days but that’s an area that we aren’t gonna be skimping on,” Walker said.
Contact reporter Caitlin Skvorc at 352-2266 or email@example.com.