Alaska is full of people who moved here to get away from their criminal pasts. Maybe it’s the laws, maybe it’s the culture, or maybe it’s just the way you grow up hearing about how wild and free this place is. I came to Alaska to escape what Kansas was putting me through after I got out of prison.
I’d been arrested in February 2009 for possession with “intent to sell” cocaine, within 1,000 feet of a school. I was in my mid-20’s, and it wasn’t my first trouble with the law—I’d been locked up for much of my teenage years on a marijuana charge. This time, I was convicted and sentenced to a few years in a prison near Kansas City. When I got out, in the summer of 2012, I knew I wanted to start over.
I also knew that starting over would be difficult. Kansas requires many drug offenders to appear on a public registry. It’s a website where anyone can look up your past, including employers, neighbors, and anyone else you meet. While I was in prison, a bunch of us got letters from the state saying we’d have to be on the registry for 15 years, and everyone was upset about it. We were also told that we’d have to show up multiple times a year at the sheriff’s office.
After I was out, four times a year, I had to go and let them take pictures of my tattoos, so they could include descriptions on the registry. I’m covered in them, so I basically had to get naked. It drives you insane, telling people, “Oh, sorry, I can’t spend the day with you, I have to spend it at the sheriff’s office.” I felt like there was no way to keep my business private, like my time was not my own.
This registry also includes sex offenders. They are separated from us drug offenders by a column on the website, but it’s pretty easy to miss. And people did miss it. My sister talked me into going to college, and I enrolled, but when the school found out about the registration, I was called into the dean’s office. They thought I was a sex offender, and I had to explain I wasn’t. I didn’t want to put up with the questions that would inevitably keep coming up, so I quit going to classes and I studied online.
Finding a job was no better. I went through so many: Foot Locker, Burger King, Church’s Chicken. It was always fine at first, until someone found out I was listed online. One boss, when he fired me, said he didn’t want customers to think they had hired “that type of person.” Everyone just assumed that I was a sex offender. I explained it to people over and over that my crime had to do with drugs. It was exhausting.
I felt like an outcast, and it affected almost every part of my life. I started dating a girl, and it went well for a while, but then she found out that if we were ever going to live together, her address would be listed online. We got into a fight, and we broke up.
It was March 2015. By then I was done with parole, meaning I didn’t have to stay in Kansas, and the registry is only for people who live inside the state.
That’s when I decided to leave. I threw a dart at a map, and it landed on Alaska. I looked up to see if they make you register for drug crimes there, and they don’t.
I packed my things and flew to Fairbanks on a Saturday. I knew it was perfectly legal for me to leave Kansas, and yet I still felt nervous the whole way, expecting at any time to be stopped and arrested. The registry had conditioned me to be paranoid. When I arrived, it was -29 degrees, and I didn’t own a jacket. I thought, What fresh hell I have come to? But by Monday, I had a job at a rental car agency at the airport. They did a background check on me, but it was just for crimes committed in the state, so I came up clean.
I soon learned I’d come to the right place. In Alaska, it feels like people judge you by your words and actions, how you represent yourself. If you abuse someone’s trust, you can lose it, but people give you a chance. I’ve seen people make deals on handshakes alone. Perhaps it’s the anti-government, anti-establishment feelings many of them have. Or perhaps it’s because everyone has to depend on one another, given the climate. It can be way below 0 degrees for months at a time, and if your power goes out, your family could die, so people are willing to lend help whenever you ask, because they know the stakes are high. But otherwise, they’re happy to be left alone—and to leave you alone.
When I got tired of the rental car job, I looked for a new one. I was rejected from some jobs that did national background checks. But I made money leading tours, taking visitors to see the Northern Lights and the dog races. Then I found a uniform and linen supply company, where the guy in charge had been to prison—in Arizona—and had moved to Alaska for a fresh start, too. We showed each other our tattoos. The feeling was very much: We’ve made our mistakes, but that was in the past.
I had a son and a daughter back in Kansas. My mother has custody, and recently she came to visit and brought them. My 13-year-old son could tell I had changed. He had once seen me in handcuffs.
“Dad,” he said, “you seem calm.”
J.T. Perkins III lives in Fairbanks, Alaska. Learn more about the Kansas drug registry here.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described who has custody of J.T. Perkins' children. They live with his mother.