Students get a look behind bars

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As students shuffled down a long hallway lined with large Plexiglass windows overlooking rooms with men dressed in orange, a muffled voice emerged from within.

“Welcome to jail!” one inmate called to to a group of journalism students visiting Fairbanks Correctional Center last week on Feb. 21.

New visitors to the prison often spark similar reactions, says superintendent Tamara Axelsson, herself a graduate of UAF.

“They’ve known me for 18 years,” she said. “You’re fresh blood.”

When new inmates come in, they sometimes act loudly or crassly with Axelsson, a woman leader in a prison dominated by men. She finds ignoring the behavior to be her best defense and said that other prisoners quickly make the newcomers fall into line.

“Respect,” Axelsson said, “is everything for people who live here.”

Axelsson emphasized respect throughout tour. When in the hall with her, prisoners look to her for permission to pass, which she offers in smiles and nods. Two people pass on the way to the prison chapel; both men stop and wait for her to tell them it’s alright to keep moving.

There are no normal work days in prison. On any day she may show up to work to find two inmates bloodied from a fight, her desk filled with paperwork. She led UAF students to the chapel at 2 p.m., well aware she would have to leave in exactly an hour and a half for a meeting about helping inmates through opioid withdrawal.

“I don’t think anyone is beyond help,” Axelsson stressed from the beginning of the tour onward.

Before becoming superintendent, Axelsson worked as a parole officer, which is how many of the long-term or returning prisoners came to know her. She says inmates’ attitude towards her has not changed much, but suspects they “pull on her heartstrings” a bit more than they might if she were male.

Axelsson allowed the class to speak with two inmates during the tour. The first man, a convicted rapist, was led into the chapel and sat in one of the low, green plastic chairs. Sex offenders are kept separate from other inmates in the prison. Due to the nature of their crimes, this segregation is partially to prevent incidents of violence.

“I read my books,” he said. “I talk to my cellmates. That’s it.”

Initially unwilling to talk much about himself, he looked to Axelsson between short answers to initial questions.

“I don’t want you to answer any questions you’re uncomfortable with,” she said, nodding. He opened up about his worries over how people will treat him when he leaves prison.

“Give us a chance,” he said. “Some people make mistakes.”

He and the second inmate said the prison system could do more to integrate inmates after they have served their time.

Bryon Kosevnikoff, the second inmate to speak to students, has been in and out of the prison system since he was 14 years old. Currently, he faces charges that include kidnapping and vehicle theft.

“Once I’m free, I just go haywire,” he said. Kosevnikoff said the resentment and aggression builds up inside him and results in his anger when he leaves. He told the students he wanted to see more educational programs in place. Kosevnikoff thinks many people in prison stay entrenched in the mindset, but he hopes he can change in the future.

Kosevnikoff told students he writes letters to the Fairbanks Daily News Miner. In his most recent letter, from Jan. 25, he talked about his personal experiences witnessing drug abuse and his desire to becoming a drug counselor when he leaves prison.

As for the convicted rapist, his sentencing in April will determine how long he will remain imprisoned. He may be facing up to 30 years in jail, having already spent almost 4 years waiting for a decision.

“You get used to these places,” he said. “I’m afraid to be outside. Everything has changed outside.”

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