Amber Martin walked the parking lot at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center doing two jobs at once. With her hands she watered geranium and lobelia hanging baskets that she was largely responsible for growing. With a leash around her waist she held Sophie, a young golden retriever she’s helping to train to provide assistance for a wounded veteran.
Those are just two of the programs Martin is involved in at Hiland, where she’s been a prisoner for more than four years. In 2008, she pleaded guilty to first-degree armed robbery. She admitted that she or an accomplice used a weapon in the holdup of seven trick-or-treaters on Halloween 2007 in Talkeetna.
She was addicted to methamphetamine at the time, she says.
“Meth makes you hallucinate and it makes you this totally crazy person. I thought that there was money because there was this charity event going on at that time,” she said. “The only thing you can think about when you’re an addict is, ‘When can I get my next high?’”
At the time, children told troopers a pickup stopped and two women in ski masks got out, threatened them with a handgun and demanded their bags of candy. Martin was arrested two days later. “Back then I was a totally different person. I had my first try with meth, and that was two months prior to coming into here.” She said, “It’s pretty embarrassing to think of my self as like that.”
“I made a promise to myself not to leave here the same person,” the 24-year-old said.
These days, Martin involves herself in every social good she can sign up for in prison – “doing time right” she calls it. She says she tutors other inmates looking to get their GED. She takes classes herself. She volunteers with Habitat for Humanity and picks up litter for the Adopt-A-Highway program. She’s a member of Inmate Council, which operates a store for other prisoners inside. Inmate Council has frequently been involved in charitable giving, recently with a donation to Bean’s Cafe. She trains dogs to help soldiers and volunteers at the Mat-Su Animal Shelter. She’s one of six inmates who work in the greenhouse.
Staff at the prison have noticed her demeanor. “She’s always been a very positive person here,” said Sgt. Vikki Lacy, who supervises Amber’s living quarters. Lt. Gloria Johnson says Martin stands in contrast to many other inmates who believe others are at fault for the situation they’re in. “She never blamed her role on anybody else,” Johnson said.
Back in 2008, Martin says she had a sober realization of what she had done to the kids that night. “I wanted to write letters to the kids and make my apologies, because I was actually off the drugs. I was like ‘Oh my gosh,’ sitting there thinking, ‘What did I just do? For one, my community hates me. How am I going to prove to them that that’s not who I am, especially off of drugs?’”
Her attorney advised her against having any contact with the victims, she said.
Just before the close of the annual Hiland Mountain Greenhouse Sale, Martin helped clean up the makeshift store in the jail parking lot. I asked her if she thought about what she’d like to do with her life when she leaves prison. Martin says she would’ve liked to become a veterinarian, but that option isn’t open to felons, she said, because it requires access to controlled substances. Still, she’d like to find a way to work with dogs in some capacity. And she’d like the chance to talk to young people, perhaps in schools, about making better choices than she did at age 20.
Martin has six years and four months left in her sentence, she said.