Updated: Mar 31, 2021
I have been asked to describe how much I have changed in the last 25 years; to provide a unique perspective on how different a juvenile offender can become upon "growing up" during a period of incarceration. In 1995, as a 16-yr old kid, I was involved in an extremely tragic domestic situation that resulted in the murder of my father and step-mother. The guilt and regret I feel over this incident are unspeakable and very difficult to get someone not in my shoes to understand. Despite this I have done my best not to allow my shame to diminish the positivity of my life.
When I came to prison at 16 years of age I was a completely broken person. An empty shell, a mere husk of humanity that lacked even the will to live, let alone recover. On my first birthday in prison my grandfather passed, who had been more like a father to me than my own, and I reached a breaking point that caused my entire life and perspective to shift. I resolved then, despite the tragedy and trauma of my life, that by the end of my days I would be able to look my father and grandfather in the eyes and see pride. That was when the true healing and resurrection of my soul began.
In 1997 I was sentenced to a term of imprisonment of 100 years composite, ran consecutive. This meant serving 47 years in prison before ever becoming eligible for parole. Many would allow a sentence like this to break them, or use it as an excuse to live a life without care. My desire to honor the lives I had taken prevented me from such a base course of action. There are three lives that I owe a debt for, and it is a sincere desire of mine to save or positively influence at least three lives by the time I reach the end of my own. It is with these promises to those lost and this sense of genuine purpose that I carry forward now.
How to describe how much I've changed since those early years? Who among us at 41 is the same person we were at 16? Since my incarceration began I have been a husband, a surrogate father and grandfather, co-owned and operated multiple businesses and two homes. I have been a mentor and spiritual leader within my community, have helped many others heal mentally, emotionally and physically - and have become a pillar for my family and friends to hold on to and rely upon.
The road has not always been easy. It is impossible to stare down nearly half a century in prison with only gladness in your heart and redemption on your mind. There have been many lessons learned, even harder battles fought, and times so dark I avoid recalling them. Yet I believe this is true in all of our lives, and I have never lost sight of the fact that this debt I owe to society and my loved ones is not easily paid. Over the years there is one thing I have gained greatly that I absolutely lacked in my youth; perspective.
We do our best to adequately explain the plight of juveniles in numerous studies - a lack of maturity (mental and emotional), underdeveloped brains, an inability to cope with tragic circumstances. The reality I have experienced is much simpler; a child lacks perspective, as with only "x" number of years under their belt they haven't seen how easily things can change, how transient circumstances can be, and how the world really isn't over no matter how much they may feel like it. They react drastically to perceived severe circumstances, when to an adult it's just another day at the office. Wisdom and maturity are only gained through enduring life's travails, and a youth simply has not endured enough to truly see things clearly without the hyper-dramatic mentality.
There was simply no way at 16 years old that I could comprehend how to adequately cope with my circumstances or make the changes necessary not to implode. Had I been able to implant the perspective and wisdom I have gained as a 41 yr old (or even 30 or 35), my crime simply would not have happened. Juveniles who commit these types of horrific crimes are not inherently bad or incorrigible people; they are young minds often broken and warped by circumstance who simply can't see the forest through the trees. With the proper amount of guidance, compassion and healing - even the worst of these offenders can grow up to become a strong, positive person.
Our country currently struggles with what it means to provide juveniles with a 'meaningful opportunity for release.' In Alaska this question is intensified by a constitutional right to reformation; rehabilitation being a chief goal of Corrections. If a juvenile is to be given this 'meaningful opportunity', a real chance to prove that reformation works - there needs to be a concerted effort and realistic goal for them to reach. Telling a 16 yr old that they must serve 30, 40, or 50 or more years in prison does not provide much hope or incentive for a life beyond these walls - and if this is what we are going to give them, hope and a positive journey are key.
At this point in my incarceration I have served nearly 25 years in prison with 22 remaining before I see a Parole Board. At 63 years of age, my opportunity to be released to a meaningful life will be greatly in question. Many in my circumstance would call it quits and care little for the future life of an elderly individual with no work experience who should retire in two years. I have found reasons and a sense of purpose that carry me beyond that dismal shore. The promises I have to keep, and lost I have to honor are simply too important for me to stand diminished or defeated.
The reality is that I could be released from prison tomorrow and would function perfectly well in society. I have largely rehabilitated myself, have been OMP complete with all DOC recommended programming for three years, and am currently working 9-11 hr days supporting the facility's Covid Mask-Making Program. My family on the outside desperately wants and needs me to come home. The mental and emotional support I have given them over the years has quickly become a need for physical and financial. I need to support them the way they have supported me all these years.
I would highly encourage any reviewing body or state administrator to take an introspective look into the treatment of juvenile offenders in this state. If Alaska is to give this class of offender a meaningful opportunity for release - it needs to do so before they have spent so much time in prison the meaning of that opportunity is lost. It is not simply that we are different people after aging 15 or 25 years; there is simply no comparison between who we were then versus who we are as middle-aged adults. Giving us a reasonable parole eligibility date does nothing but provide us with the opportunity to demonstrate the maturity, wisdom and perspective we could not have had in our youth.
Thank You for Your Time and Consideration,
Richard Watkinson #347172