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Colorado's Prison System Structured to Promote Failure

August 12, 12:41 PM - Denver Criminal Justice Examiner - John Miller

Mike peers from beneath the sackcloth he uses as a blanket, watching coldly as the other shelter residents ready themselves for sleep. The room is lined with beds and smells of body odor and unwashed clothes. Near the entrance, several men are laughing at another man’s banal, explicit clowning. But Mike is not in the mood for nonsense. Restless and desperate, he wonders how much longer he can maintain.

It has been four weeks since he was released from prison, after serving four years for a child abuse charge. While in prison he came to terms with his problem, realizing he was addicted not only to his anger, but to the adrenaline rush it gives him. He vowed to himself when he was released that he would never go down that road again. He is prohibited from any contact with his son, and he understandingly complies. Required by his parole to attend anger management classes every week, he does so dutifully.

But the roadblocks for felony offenders in Colorado are wearing him down. He can’t secure employment beyond day labor because the ID card he was issued by the Department of Corrections is invalid for DMV or Social Security purposes. And his felony conviction has prohibited him from being accepted by every apartment he has applied for.

The only place that will accept him is the Salvation Army’s Crossroads homeless shelter, which is where many newly released prisoners end up. Entrance to the shelter is limited; residents are required to leave from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, rain or shine. Life in the shelter is not unlike prison. The other day, he watched as two former DOC inmates beat down another man in the smoking area out back and took all his money. A shelter volunteer, responsible for halting such activity, laughed as he watched and then did nothing. Very much like a prison guard.

He remembers counting the days to his release, anxious to have served his debt to society and be free. But now he worries about finding a job, or a place to live. He knows if he doesn’t do so soon, it will violate his parole and they will send him back. His existence feels like prison without the bars.

He just got back today from shoveling snow for three days, and he made a pretty decent sum of cash. But without a valid ID, he can’t open a bank account. Just like in prison, everybody knows everybody else’s business. As he peers from beneath his sackcloth, he knows it’s only a matter of time before they come to try to steal his money.

As a newly-released ex-offender on parole, he knows the last place he should be is surrounded by criminals. And they know it too. As he gazes at the shelter’s entrance, the streets beckon to him to come out and play, calling him for one last dance.

According to the Colorado Department of Corrections an average of 841 ex-offenders a month are released from Colorado prisons. The premise of serving a prison sentence is the belief that once the time has been served, the ex-offender will be allowed to pursue the rest of their lives with minimal interference, providing they succeed in staying out of trouble.

But the reality is that these former prisoners have a better chance of being re-incarcerated than they have of ever making a life for themselves. And though there are many reasons for this, aside from the fact that some of them deserve to stay in prison, most former prisoners are finding out that the structure of Colorado’s parole and judicial system is skewed to ensure their failure.

It’s a system that is costing Colorado taxpayers more than $900 million a year, and is proving to be ineffective and unsafe. Even if you don’t care about an ex-offender’s plight, it is foolish and short-sighted to not care about what happens when they get out.

“To Preserve the Public Safety”

The key argument in any discussion about Department of Corrections’ policies is always in regard to public safety. Once a criminal is found guilty and sentenced, it is DOC’s responsibility to ensure that they are not a threat to society anymore. And so long as they are locked up in one of Colorado’s prisons, this is accomplished easily enough.

The problems arise when a prisoner completes their sentence and are set free, as the majority of them eventually are. Logic might dictate that DOC’s role in ensuring public safety has been met, the prisoner has served their debt to society, and life goes on from there.

And if prisons were rehabilitative institutions, this might be a logical expectation. However, says Colorado State Public Defender Douglas Wilson, thanks largely to the “Tough on Crime” campaign inadvertently initiated by Mike Dukakis and Willie Horton, prison sentences have shifted from being rehabilitative to highly punitive. Lengthy sentences for drug offenses became the norm as “truth in sentencing” legislation emphasizes punishment over rehabilitation.

The result has been a class of ex-convict with no employment or life skills, distant and disconnected family relationships, and years of programming that has solidified an antisocial, jailhouse mentality. Suddenly, DOC’s responsibility to preserve public safety extends beyond their walls and into the community, because of the accountability they incurred by creating a legion of psychotics they are obligated to unleash onto the public.

So, what do you do with a mass of humanity unfit for public consumption?
A. Don’t ever let them out (this option may please a good portion of upscale Coloradans, but it’s not really an option). B. Make it so impossible for any released prisoner to make it on the outside that they eventually end up in prison again.
DOC has chosen the latter option to pursue, and it has worked out spectacularly well. According to statistics compiled by the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice 2008 Annual Report, recidivism rates are at 53 percent; for parolees, it’s 65 percent. Recidivism rates are defined as the percentage of released inmates that are re-incarcerated within three years of their release.

However, it’s really expensive to do business this way, and it extends beyond the obvious costs of incarceration, because for every illegal act that prompts a new jail sentence, there is going to be a victim. According to the commission’s report, these occurrences alone cost Colorado taxpayers 60 million a year. Coupled with $30,387 a year spent on each prisoner to keep them jailed, Colorado taxpayers spend more than $900 million on incarceration, a fact not lost on Colorado Governor Bill Ritter. The Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice was commissioned by Ritter in January 2008 to investigate and submit recommendations concerning cost-effective alternatives to incarceration.

“When you talk about public safety, it depends what your definition of public safety is,” says Wilson. He says DOC’s definition is to lock them back up for any infraction at all. His would be to give them a chance to become productive members of society so that they don’t have to resort to illegal activities to survive.

The John Inmann Work and Family Center

Smith Road is a lonely stretch near the intersection of Quebec and I-70. Although miles from the shelters and parole offices downtown, this is where Denver County corrections inmates are dropped off upon completing their prison sentence. Given $100 “gate money” (a figure that has not changed since 1973, despite inflation), a DOC ID card (unless their lucky enough to have their driver’s license reissued), and a color-coded polo shirt issued by DOC that signifies to law enforcement authorities the severity of their offense, they are told to report to their parole officer.

Some are lucky enough to have family or friends ready to pick them up and give them somewhere to stay while they pull their life together. Many end up in the homeless shelters, such as the Crossroads at 29th St. and Broadway. DOC will pay for the first two weeks to stay there, but after that it costs $130 every two weeks.

After their parole officer makes it clear that they are expected to obtain a stable residence and employment so that they can begin making restitution and child support payments if necessary, they are generally referred to the John Inmann center at 877 Federal Blvd. to hopefully obtain employment and housing.

“It’s sort of a one-stop shop for ex-offenders.” says Katherine Sanguinette, public information officer for DOC. Housed in an aging, bright-yellow building that still bears signs and poster boards from its out-of-business predecessor, the center professes to offer many vital services to its newly-released clientele. It also performs case management services for parolees. “We do a lot of good work here,” a receptionist chirps to an otherwise empty lobby.

Partnerships are formed with government agencies, private companies and individuals, say Sanguinette. For instance, a partnership was formed with the Department of Labor to help procure employment. “If any of our offenders need employment, they can visit one of our work force centers. There are case managers on hand at these centers to help them find a job.”

They’ve also formed partnerships with specific landlords to help obtain housing, or to find bed space at a shelter. This service is limited, however, because most corporate owned housing, along with the Department of Housing and Urban Development and most of the Denver metro area’s housing authorities, refuse housing to anyone with a felony conviction. This leaves only privately-owned properties and, according to Sanguinette, “they go fast.”

A partnership with the Department of Revenue has made it possible for ex-offenders to obtain drivers licenses and ID cards. “In the past year, we’ve helped obtain over 1000 IDs,” says Sanguinette.

“We work hard to help with the re-integration process,” says Sanguinette. It’s hard to doubt the passion and commitment of anyone associated with the John Inmann center. After all, the old building on Federal is the only Colorado Department of Corrections re-entry facility in the entire state.

The cost of doing business

Douglas K. Wilson, Colorado State Public Defender, is perusing the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice 2008 Annual Report when he points out recidivism rates, which he feels are an indicator of failed re-entry. “That is the parole return to prison in Colorado,” he says. “That percentage is pretty damn big and is an indictment of the re-entry program.”

Wilson is a member of the 27 person commission appointed by Ritter to analyze the DOC system and make recommendations. Although passionate about curbing the runaway spending that has become a staple of the judicial system and DOC, he understands the concerns the public has. “I am not one to say there is not a place for prisons, because I think there is. But I think the information that we have is that it should be a place for violent offenders, not non-violent offenders. Not the property taxes, not the thefts, not the habitual traffic offenders, that makes no sense to me when we can supervise people on the streets for $9 a day in community-based programs.”

Wilson’s main contention is that low-level felony offenders are being given unreasonable expectations that result in them being re-incarcerated. “If you are required to report at two in the afternoon on Monday, and you got to drop a UA at 3 o’clock on Thursday, and you have to see your treatment provider at 8 o’clock on Friday, then you can’t hold a job. And if you can’t hold a job, then you can’t make the money to pay the restitution and to pay the treatment and to pay for the program. And if you can’t do that then they’re going to send you back.”

Sanguinette says that the parole department is more flexible than in the past about scheduling times for ex-offenders to meet the obligations of their parole. “We have shifted the parole officer’s focus from the office to the street,” she says. “Officers now spend their day meeting offenders at their place of employment or their residence.” As for UAs, she says when a parolee is notified to submit urine for testing, they are given four to five hours to comply.

However, several parolees interviewed said they are often notified to submit a UA in the morning, more than six to seven hours before they are off work. In addition, they say that although a surprise visit by their parole officer to their place of employment will take the place of the mandatory weekly or monthly meeting they must go to the parole office for, they feel like they are being spied on, and that the visits inspire suspicion about them from their employer.

When an offender arrives at prison, their driver’s license and social security card are confiscated. If they don’t have anyone to mail them to, or no one to pick them up, the documents are destroyed. They are issued a DOC ID card and told that it is a valid state ID. But neither the Social Security Administration nor the Department of Motor Vehicles recognize it as valid identification. They are told they need to produce an original birth certificate from their state of birth. And though not impossible, the process is time-consuming; time that they cannot secure employment because they have no identification.

“There’s no correlation between what we take drivers licenses away for,” says Wilson. “If you’re out on a possession for coke, they take your driver’s license. Well, why? What’s the rehabilitative nature there of taking your driver’s license?”

Parolees are mandated to conform to many requirements. They are expected to secure and maintain gainful employment and housing, abstain from using alcohol or drugs, attend all meetings and treatment programs specified by their parole officers, and pay all court-ordered fines, restitution and child support. Any deviation from these responsibilities, any missed meeting or payment, any hot UA, is a technical violation of their parole and serves cause for them to be sent back to prison.

According to DOC statistics, 65 percent of all parolees are returned to prison within three years of starting their parole. Of this 65 percent, 60 percent are returned on technical violations, not for committing a new crime.

“I think that for guys and gals to come out and make it in today’s world is tough, and that’s why we have such a huge revocation percentage on technical violations, not new offenses,” says Wilson. “They can’t make their appointments, they can’t get a job and they can’t do their treatment.”

“But if you hit the street and you got no drivers license, you got no place to live, you got no job and you’ve got to go to the parole department or drop UAs and get treatment three times a week, you don’t have much of a shot. You’re set up to fail.”

The Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice

The commission was convened by Ritter to conduct a five year study and report, on a yearly basis, its findings and recommendations concerning the criminal and juvenile justice system. The first year is dedicated to reducing recidivism and curbing the costs of corrections. These issues were given first priority because they are the most critical to enhancing public safety. According to Wilson, it’s simply not enough to incarcerate people for five to ten years and then let them go. If they aren’t given an alternative to the life style of crime they had before, they will invariably pick up where they left off when they are released.

“What the community seems to have forgotten is that most guys are coming out,” says Wilson. “So you better start working with them as they’re going in to make sure that they don’t go back in, because we cannot continue to pay $30,387 a year per inmate to keep people in prison.”

In their report, the commission recommends 66 changes to the judicial system and DOC’s business practices and work processes that are designed to improve the transition from prison to society for ex-offenders and maximize the chances of their success. Eight of these deal specifically with giving them the opportunity to learn a new skill, which includes job training and community college classes while they are still in prison and job placement assistance when they get out.

One might wonder why Colorado taxpayers should pay to educate, and then give jobs to, a group of deviants whom were recently incarcerated for committing crimes against a society they now wish to rejoin.

One reason is it’s simply less expensive in the long run to do business this way. Studies by the commission have shown that strong ties to employment and family reduce recidivism considerably. Less recidivism means less people going back to prison, and less that has to be spent on corrections. It also creates a larger work force, which creates more commerce and a healthier economy.

A more important reason is safety to the community. A well-known adage between convicts is that the only thing they learned in prison was how to be a better criminal. And, as stated earlier, sooner or later, they’re coming out. Do we want an institutionalized thug whose primary concern is who their next victim is? Or do we want someone who is anxious to start a new career and become a productive member of society?

“You can’t look at re-entry from the day the guy gets out,” says Wilson. “You got to look at re-entry the day before the guy goes in. And that’s when re-entry should start. If somebody’s going in, you should start working with them at that point with the idea of a successful reintegration into society.”

“I’m not advocating that murderers and rapists and aggravated robbers and drug dealers should get much of a break, but I still think we need to look at the reintegration program from the day they went in.”

Mike might have appreciated such considerations, but he managed to pull himself up. He met up with his birth mother, whom he had never met before, and together with his brother they rented a two-bedroom apartment. The situation is somewhat tenuous, however. Because of his felony, Mike is not on the lease. If the property owners found out he was living there, they would all be evicted immediately.

He secured a job with a fast food restaurant, and has been employed with them for over a year. Mike clings to his job. He knows between the job and his residence, they are the only things keeping him from being sent back to prison. He uses the light rail and bus systems to get himself to and from work. Fearing reprisal from the parole office, he asked that his real name not be used for this story.

He spends all of his free time playing computer games on an old computer he found and refurbished.

He has no friends.

And though under control, he is still really angry.

This article is posted on PLN’s website by permission of the author. It was originally posted on

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