Inuit do­ing time in re­motest Alaska

Amer­ica’s Hard­est Pris­ons 7.30pm, Na­tional Ge­o­graphic

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv -

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.

Steve Creedy

Hu­man plight: In­mates ex­er­cise in Yukon Kuskok­wim Cor­rec­tional Cen­tre

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