Inuit doing time in remotest Alaska
America’s Hardest Prisons 7.30pm, National Geographic
THE Yupik people of southwest Alaska have some familiar problems. For hundreds of years the Inuit survived by hunting, fishing and trapping the coastal plains near the Kuskokwim River. Then, sometime in the 1940s, bottled booze arrived in their small communities.
Ninety-five per cent of crimes in this remote area are now alcoholrelated and those who succumb to the demon drink often end up in area’s Yukon Kuskokwim Correctional Centre in Bethel.
It may not be the world’s worst jail but it certainly qualifies as one of the most remote and for 18-year-old Billy Rivers it is an intimidating place.
Rivers is a repeat offender, up on burglary charges and dealing with the adult jail system for the first time. Despite facing up to 16 years if convicted, he is far from a hardened criminal and he knows he is highly vulnerable as a young first-timer in an adult jail containing some genuine bad cases.
He has an older sibling in YKCC whom he hoped would offer some protection but his brother is in ‘‘ the hole’’ and unable to help. ‘‘ I want to go home,’’ Rivers cries. ‘‘ I miss my mum and dad already.’’
Rivers’s case is one of several threads this latest episode in National Geographic’s prison series pulls together to weave its story about an unusual prison.
On the other side of the ledger, Alaska state troopers based near YKCC track down people such as Rivers by any means necessary. That may mean grabbing rifles and hopping in a light aircraft to visit an isolated village amid the sodden tundra or heading downriver on a boat. Each Yupik village has a village public safety officer whose job it is to hold offenders or alert troopers to trouble. The VPSOs are alert to the fact they must live in the community and are often called on to target people who two weeks later may be coming out to rescue them in a boat.
The troopers, too, are sensitive to the community needs and appear to take a softer approach than some of their Rambo-like big city colleagues.
But, as one of them notes, they still want to get back to their families alive at night and they are not going to take any unnecessary risks. They go in armed, protected by flak jackets and ready to open fire if the worst comes to the worst.
Not having seen other episodes from this series, which features some of North America’s most fearsome jails, my initial fear was that this would be another sensational madefor-cable time-waster.
However, this fear proved unfounded. The episode provides an insightful and often sympathetic overview of a human plight to which many in remote areas can relate.
Human plight: Inmates exercise in Yukon Kuskokwim Correctional Centre