This article was produced in partnership with the Anchorage Daily News, a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.
Two windows, each the size of a brick, show her sunrise and sunset. When the meal cart rolls to a stop outside her vault-like cell door, Ricki Dahlin knows it’s noon.
This is how you tell time in the hole at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center. Hidden among the acres of skeletal birch and Christmas tree evergreens outside Anchorage, the prison houses 322 women convicts from across Alaska. Dahlin, a 28-year-old recovering addict, is a regular.
In 2018, police arrested her at gunpoint for trying to ram her way through a barricade in a stolen GMC Sierra. They found a gram of heroin in the center console and a palm-size .380 handgun on the passenger seat.
The arrest came amid a drug-fueled surge in Anchorage car thefts and break-ins between 2016 and 2018, a crime wave that in part prompted the state to roll back research-based pretrial reforms. As some legislators demanded harsher sentences for thieves, Dahlin appeared in court, where pretrial service and probation officers said she posed a clear danger to herself, the public and police.
“[She has] no regard for the law,” one exasperated-sounding prosecutor said at a September 2018 bail hearing.
From Dahlin’s point of view, it’s the law that hasn’t held up its end of the bargain.
Born premature and diagnosed with a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, Dahlin said she was sexually abused as a girl. She remembers letting her mind go blank when the man would begin to touch her. “Blacking out,” she calls it.
By age 13, Dahlin was drinking and using drugs. When she began to date, some of those boys and men hurt her too, she said.
“A lot of people look at us as just drug addicts or junkies, ‘You know, they deserve to be in jail.’ Well it goes deeper than that,” Dahlin said. “We’re broken. We’re trying to fix ourselves.”
Yet as she passes the hours in a segregation cell at Hiland — punishment for a prison relapse involving smuggled drugs — the man she named as her primary abuser lives free, she said. (Dahlin said she never reported the abuse to police and the man never faced charges. He denies the allegations.)
Dahlin was allowed to leave segregation for a short time to talk with other inmates and a reporter about their experiences. To her left, two women listened and nodded. They’d survived sexual assaults too, the inmates said.
The trio agreed to be interviewed before the coronavirus pandemic required social distancing, sitting among the Lego tables and baby seats of a prison visitation room. Outside, icicles and razor wire ringed the compound.
“The majority of people who are incarcerated in the woman’s facility have been the victim of some level of abuse throughout the history of their life,” said Cathleen McLaughlin, who advocates for prisoner re-entry programs. She’s worked with thousands of Alaska inmates over the years, she said.
Just because someone has been convicted of a crime doesn’t mean they aren’t telling the truth about past traumas, she said. “On one day they can be the victim, on another day they can be the perpetrator.”
To hear the inmates tell it, no one seems to want to hear that the soaring rate of sexual abuse and rape in Alaska traumatizes children and teens, who sometimes turn to substance abuse, which inevitably lands them in prison.
“Not to say that doing drugs is right, because I did stupid shit when I was high on drugs all the way,” one of Dahlin’s fellow inmates said. “But I feel like if more focus was on busting the ones that were doing the abusing there might be a decline in drugs, drug use here in the state.”
After the interview, conducted March 2, Dahlin returned to the segregation wing, where prisoners pace 8-by-10-foot cells the color of cigarettes. Metal toilets face metal desks. The inmates watch for new arrivals by peering through slats just large enough for a food tray, at the bottom of each steel door.
“The hole is full right now,” Dahlin said at the time. She wasn’t the only one caught using. “I’ve been in for nine days.”
On her left hand is a homemade tattoo: “5150.” A legal code for people in crisis who might hurt themselves or others. When people say she doesn’t show emotion, she tells them she never learned how.
As a child it never occurred to her she should tell someone about the abuse, or that they would believe her, she said.
“It happened so young and so often … I thought I just deserved it,” she said.
“Not that I didn’t know it was wrong,” Dahlin said. “But I kind of didn’t.”