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Mass incarceration as we know it today owes much of its existence to the political rationale created by the War on Drugs. Although proffered as a solution to the public health crisis of drug addiction, prisons actually provide little in the way of real care or rehabilitation for people struggling with substance abuse. In Alaska, True North Recovery, an addiction treatment and advocacy organization run by formerly incarcerated people, is working to expand care for incarcerated people suffering from addiction. Kara Nelson joins Rattling the Bars to discuss these efforts.

Kara Nelson is currently the chief operating officer at True North Recovery, and a Governor-appointed board member of the Alaska Advisory Board on Alcoholism and Drug Addiction. Since 2016, Kara has served as a chaplain for the Alaska Department of Corrections.

Studio: David Hebden, Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


Mansa Musa:  Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m Mansa Musa, your host. Kara Nelson is currently the chief operating officer at True North Recovery and a governor-appointed board member of the Alaska Advisory Board on Alcoholism and Drug Addiction. Since 2016, Kara has served as a chaplain for the Alaska Department of Corrections. Welcome to Rattling the Bars, Kara.

Kara Nelson:  Thank you. It’s such an honor to be here.

Mansa Musa:  I gave a brief overview of some of the things. Tell our audience a little bit about yourself.

Kara Nelson:  Sure. Well, as you mentioned, I’m the chief operating officer here at True North Recovery, but I started out after 20 years of active addiction, in and out of prison. It was about 20 years there. My last release was in 2011. At that time I started a nonprofit, a home for women coming home after incarceration. And it was a launching pad for a lot of advocacy and people speaking out that one had a desire to live a recovery pathway, but also people that had been formerly incarcerated, family members, and a space that hadn’t been done before.

That has started me on this trek of how I got to where I’m at and I’ve been involved with True North from the beginning. One of my best friends is the CEO, and I say that because he also was incarcerated. We have lived experienced employees. I would say, about 95% of us have some lived experience as well as our professional experience, which gives us the unique ability for that innovative way of reimagining behavioral health, and how we do it.

Mansa Musa:  All right. As I was talking to you earlier about Alaska. And for most people, unless you live in Alaska, visited, or had some type of tourist association with it, our general information comes from Discovery. And in that regard, we often think of Alaska as wilderness, we often think of Alaska as people that are more nature-driven. We don’t think of Alaska as a place where people will have a substance abuse problem. We don’t think of Alaska as a place where you have people going to prison, or what a prison would look like in Alaska; It’d be a stretch of our imagination. Talk about, in the face of what’s going on in society today, mainly with drug addiction.

 I’m from the District of Columbia, I’m in this region, we have a fentanyl overdose and we have the legalization of marijuana. And at the same token, it’s been decriminalized in terms of your possession of it, but it’s not decriminalized in terms of, you do something with it in your system and caused something to happen, that you going to be charged appropriately. Talk about the recovery effort that you all are doing up there in Alaska. Talk about y’all program and some of the things that you all are doing, and why you think this is important work in Alaska.

Kara Nelson:  Well, it’s incredibly impactful. One, Alaska is very different than anywhere else, and so a lot of the different programs and initiatives don’t work the same here because Alaska’s huge and people, we’re spread out all over the place. For instance, when we have substances brought into our state, they’re either brought in by plane or boat and so there are federal issues and charges that are associated with that. It’s hard to get the support you need, people live in very remote areas. We have 750,000 people that live in Alaska and almost 400,000 of those live in one city: in Anchorage, about 45 minutes from where I’m at right now. And so, it’s very difficult. We have the same issues as across the country and the challenges are heightened because of lack of access. 

We’re usually pretty behind when it comes to being innovative or having those resources and changing the landscape of how we provide treatment. I’m very passionate about programs and getting inside the prisons, making sure that everyone has equal access to mental health and substance use treatment and rehabilitation. That’s also very unique because the prisons are a long way away from your home, so there isn’t that connectivity. Also, because it’s so dark here in the wintertime, the depression levels and suicide rates are extremely high. Last year we were first in the country, I’m not quite sure what the numbers are this year for suicide, as well as domestic violence, which of course all are in that continuum of getting into prison and utilizing substances to survive. And it’s what works and what doesn’t work. 

Mansa Musa:  Right, I got you. If you know, how many prisons exist in Alaska?

Kara Nelson:  It’s a unified prison system. We have 12 prisons and then there are lots of holding facilities. We have these small communities and honestly, they call them holding facilities, but people could stay there for a very lengthy period of time. We have one woman’s prison, which is in Anchorage. And so, if you live anywhere in the state and you get sent to the woman’s prison, you’re so far away from your family. Also, we work hard with the DOC to have the programming inside for treatment, especially mental health and substance use disorders. But what happens is, they only have, in one institution, maybe five people who can fit into the boxes to check, and then it’s portrayed as it’s happening across the state. So that’s something that we work on to eliminate and have access to care.

Mansa Musa:  In terms of the organization, True North Recovery,  I was looking at some of the things that you all are doing on the webpage. But talk about how long you all have been in existence. And what are some of the things that you’re doing, both outside in society and if you all have any inroads in dealing with anything within the correction system?

Kara Nelson:  True North Recovery was founded in 2016. But prior to that, it was two guys who were tired of seeing their friends die. And I was friends with them and I was also doing that in the nonprofit I mentioned earlier, the home for women and programming for women. And so, we took it upon ourselves because we were trying to make a change. Yet, with all the different treatment facilities and behavioral health systems, there were so many barriers, you couldn’t get an assessment to get in, for months out.

One of the many things that is part of our hearts is same-day access to services. It started out as a peer support network and different treatment centers would contract us to do peer support. And at the time, it wasn’t talked about like it is now. People didn’t want to talk about going to prison, people didn’t talk about their recovery. It started out there and they saw the impact of that lived experience with others in a way that they couldn’t hear it when we were trying to advocate for. But when they saw it working and the success stories and even if people didn’t live an abstinence-based life, their quality of life changed. Fiend 2 Clean was what it was called in the beginning. And the State of Alaska approached us and said, we want to fund you to start a nonprofit. And we called it True North, and that was in 2016. I’m pretty sure it’s the only time a state has freeloaded crazy kids who were trying to save lives at the time.

Since then, we started as an outpatient program with peer support across the board. We don’t add peer support into our programs, we are peers, and we add the clinical aspects and the other aspects into that. We started out as an outpatient. It grew tremendously because, of course, in the beginning, we were people that people could relate to. We would have so many messages coming in. And again, I didn’t technically work for True North, but we were in a tight little network across the state making this happen. We went from there to opening an inpatient treatment center and it’s a 10,000 square foot beautiful home. Everything we do is very personalized, it’s not an institution. If you walked into our treatment center, it’s very homelike, very comfortable. 

Everyone that works inside that building does have lived experience: everyone from our master clinician to our intake people. And of course, that comes with working with the prison system, and trying to do bed-to-bed transfers, and building those relationships. Mind you, it’s a small state, we’ve all had interactions with the criminal justice system. So, developing all those relationships and recognizing that it’s not always policy that will change things. We want to get in, build relationships, and then change the culture. Change the culture within the probation system, change the culture within the prison system, judges, and prosecutors.

Now we’re opening another inpatient treatment facility up north in Fairbanks. We have a lot of very extensive reentry case management, we go inside before, and then, of course, during there are lots of bail hearings. We have a walk-in crisis center, we do a mobile crisis team, and again, all utilize people with lived experience. They’ll go on the streets with the mental health clinician up here, develop relationships with law enforcement so they don’t have to go to the ER, they don’t have to go to prison. They’re not going to get arrested when we can build that trust and have them call our mobile crisis team and go deescalate a situation.

Mansa Musa:  Right, right, right. And from what I’m seeing, from what I’m gathering, you all are heavy on recognizing that when we talk about substance use disorder or alcohol use disorder, you all seem like you’ve got the model that most people are adopting. That in the country that’s learned, this is more about mental health than it is about criminal behavior. Is that a correct analysis?

Kara Nelson:  Absolutely –

Mansa Musa: And in terms – Go ahead. Go ahead. Excuse me.

Kara Nelson:  – We can’t incarcerate our way out of these complex social issues. It’s been a long process, but we’re at a great place now where we’re building foundations to do away with those old ideas. Mind you, as I said, we had to do it first to show this is evidence-based. When you support someone, when you surround them, and don’t punish them for acting on their illness. And let us do the work. You don’t have to, we’ll do it.

Mansa Musa:  Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s right. I heard you say you all had got funding for True North Recovery. In terms of your relationship with the Department of Correction or the court system, how are you all able to impact both to get them to recognize that it’s a mental health issue and that the way to deal with it is to be more treatment-orientated, as opposed to carceral? Have you all been able to make inroads in that regard?

Kara Nelson:  We have, it’s person by person. Also, to make it clear, we don’t work for you, but we are going to have the minimal contact that we can. I’m talking about judges.  Let’s say someone gets a bail hearing and a bed in our facility, we want to make sure they trust what we’re doing, but we’re also holding the line of that confidentiality and HIPAA. And a lot of times they don’t want to do that because in their mind they’re like, these are pre-sentence people. They’re probably going to go to prison, for years possibly. Why would we let them out for treatment?

And we’re good at explaining and educating that, even if they did end up doing some time, there’s a ton of drugs and situations and the culture inside the prison that we’re also working on, but we’re not there yet. And so, there are so many people that have died by overdose and suicide, especially in our Alaska prisons in the last two years. It’s tripled without having that treatment and rehabilitation inside.

Mansa Musa:  I did an amount of time in prison, and I saw firsthand substance abuse in prison. I was instrumental in being a part of that organization in terms of the fellowship and trying to get other men within the prison population to deal with this disease of addiction, or to deal with whatever was going on with them that causes them to revert to substance use disorder. And I noticed that, as of late, the courts in this area have started accepting the model of its mental as opposed to criminal, and they have been inclined to send people to drug programs. Is your program being utilized by the court as a referral?

Kara Nelson:  We are not specifically, but again, it’s a small state. There are certain treatment centers that have contracts with the DOC, and we do that in the place we started services. And we will. Because we’re such a young company and people are trying to check us out because we’ve grown so fast, we wait around for permission or funding. We know that the best thing is to get people either into treatment or at the right level of care, immediately. We do have drug courts here, again, they’re so different across the board.

In one city in Alaska, mind you, we have to fly, we don’t just drive from city to city. It’s what we do in the interior. And so, it’s an education piece on letting them know that we are available and we will take folks. And there are a lot of archaic mindsets still. Unless you’re in the main area, which is Anchorage, they’re pretty open about that.

Mansa Musa:  People that have substance use disorder problems, can they walk into your organization if they don’t have any insurance? Or do they have to have some type of insurance in order to receive the treatment that you’re offering?

Kara Nelson:  We’re on Medicaid, we take Medicaid. And if you don’t have Medicaid, we will help you get that. If you don’t qualify for Medicaid, we’re not going to turn anyone away. It’s different situations where we do a sliding scale fee, but also we have scholarships. It could mean many different things, even if someone has an income. Again, because we’ve all walked through it ourselves, I’ve been through every program you can imagine, years of active addiction in and out of prisons. And so, those are how the lens of our decision-making is made.

Obviously, we stay in the regulations for the state, yet also, we’re always challenging them and showing them, I know this is how you’ve always done it, but here’s what we’ve done, and it works, and people are getting well.

Mansa Musa:  And in terms of the families, women that are suffering from substance use disorder, if they have children, have you all been confronted with them in situations? And how do you all navigate that? And I know that’s a hard situation because, for a person that’s a recovering addict like myself, I’ve made some bad decisions that ultimately led to some relationships. To the days that I’m having problems with parenting., how do you all deal with those types of situations?

Kara Nelson:  Well, you can’t have children while you’re in our facility. But one of the many great things and why I work here is because we have so many extensive partnerships. So, we know we can’t do everything. Not partnerships like, oh, call this person. These are people we personally have a relationship with and we have a list of folks who we know. A lot of times, we’ll even do an MOU with them to have that partnership solidified even if it’s, hey, we’re going to partner with you. And anytime your case manager or peer or whoever calls, we’re going to make sure that it’s given the attention it needs in the appropriate timeframe. Like our walk-in services, we have people walk in all day long, we’re referring and helping them to other treatment centers, not just ours. We want them to get where they need.

But the family. Women and family – I have three kids. I’m very passionate about women, especially women incarcerated, the unique complexities of that, and the trauma I’ve experienced myself. It’s something that I’m very passionate about is women and children. My kids are adults now, we’re still walking through that restoration journey even after 20 years.

Mansa Musa:  I noticed you’re a chaplain in the Department of Correction. In terms of your involvement in institutions, I’m quite sure you see a lot of things that go on in this environment. When you’ve been in this space, trust is hard to come by. But when people see you have a commonality, they tend to trust you more than they would not, if they know it’s a commonality and it’s a no-judgment zone. What impact are you having in terms of in prison? Is your organization involved in trying to do some things within the prisons to create support groups, networking, and peer-type of activities within the Alaskan prison system?

Kara Nelson:  Our organization doesn’t necessarily do that, except for going in to share what our resources are and to give them that avenue to connect with someone. But they support me in all my craziness, so it’s very important for me to go in. Especially now, I moved up here a couple of years ago, and so I’m very close to our women’s prison now. It’s 30 minutes away from here and I’ve been in all the prisons. As someone who’s formally incarcerated, in the beginning, it was unheard of for someone like me to be able to go back in, still on felony probation, and do prison ministry.

I was able to do that, and now it’s opened up doors for others because it used to be you had to be off paper for five years. And so I had the state chaplain come to me like, how are you getting into my institutions? It was building relationships. And they saw, again, I would have correctional officers calling me like, hey, we’re having a ruckus in J dorm, and can you come down and talk to these ladies? It’s the power of having people’s lived experiences. As you said, even if I didn’t have the same experience as you, there’s an instant trust even coming on this show and talking to you because I know where you come from, to some degree, and it’s very impactful. 

My dad is the chaplain at a prison here in Alaska. He didn’t want anything to do with me during my addiction or anything to do with me while I was in prison. I never had one visitor, they had my children. And his heart was changed to the point where now he would be in the prison all day long because there’s such an impact that can be made there to lift people into who they were created to be. And I utilize that time as well to speak into some of the justice parts, or people sharing their story, their testimony, how powerful that is. And bringing all that ugliness to light to make a change in a powerful way.

Mansa Musa:  Right. Thank you. And you have the last word. What do you want to tell our audience about Alaska, and more importantly True North Recovery and some of the works that you are doing, going forward?

Kara Nelson:  People with lived experience can see through a lens of professional regulations. It doesn’t have to be difficult, we opened a detox center. When you want to do something and there’s something that’s a need in your community, it’s not as complicated as you’re making it out to be. And having that lens is more powerful than you can imagine. We have all the degrees and all the professionalism, all of those things. But what makes us the most powerful and impactful change-makers is that we have a lens of walking through it ourselves and allowing for it to go forward. And not being afraid, or taking risks. Your story is powerful. You are powerful beyond belief, whether that’s in a personal or professional realm. To say I’m the CO of one of the largest treatment centers in the state of Alaska, it’s all because of the experience I went through.

Mansa Musa:  That’s right. And how does our audience get in touch with you if they want to become more involved?

Kara Nelson:  Sure. You can email me at And our website as well, which needs to be updated, but the basics are there.

Mansa Musa:  All right. Thank you, Kara. And there you have it, The Real News and Rattling the Bars. True North Recovery. In Alaska? You might say. True North Recovery. Kara is well-spoken in understanding the disease of addiction. She’s well-versed in understanding how to help people navigate their way out of this. And we ask that you continue to support Rattling the Bars and The Real News because it’s only from this mechanism that you’re going to get information like True North Recovery as it relates to helping people rebuild their lives. People with lived experience are better situated to help other people with lived experience. 

So we ask you to continue to support Rattling the Bars and The Real News. Thank you very much, Kara Nelson. Appreciate you taking this time to enlighten us and educate us on some of the work that you are doing in Alaska, and hope that you continue to make progress. And we look forward to seeing you back on our show in the near future.

Kara Nelson:  Absolutely. Thank you.

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Mansa Musa, also known as Charles Hopkins, is a 70-year-old social activist and former Black Panther. He was released from prison on December 5, 2019, after serving 48 years, nine months, 5 days, 16 hours, 10 minutes. He co-hosts the TRNN original show Rattling the Bars.