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Suspended Colorado Work Release Program Exposes Companies’ Reliance on Low-Wage Labor

by Benjamin Tschirhart

Human resources manager Jeanette Carmack called them “really, really good guys”: nine prisoners from the Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC) who filled positions in the Public Works and Parks, Recreation and Golf departments at the city of Delta. That was until the Take TWO (Transitional Work Opportunity) program shut down on September 30, 2022.

The program was effectively suspended on July 16, 2022, when DOC prisoner Timothy O’Brien, 56, cut off his ankle monitor and hijacked a Chevy from the worksite where he was detailed. He was recaptured hours later just across the state line in Farmington, New Mexico.

On July 29, 2022, a dozen employers attended a video conference with Gov. Jared Polis (D) to complain that tightened restrictions on the Take TWO program had drastically reduced the number of prisoners who qualified – and even those few weren’t available because Polis also insisted on DOC transports for them, which the agency was too short-staffed to manage. The head of one employer told the governor it was “losing a little over $40,000 a week” as a result.

During the three years the program ran, it seems that Colorado businesses had become dependent on the captive labor pool. “People who are already quote unquote ‘housed’ in prison [and] available to work is pretty much the best-case scenario for us at this time,” said Ken Cook, a restaurant owner now struggling to find workers who will accept his low wages.

Cook is not alone in his struggle. One Chaffee County business owner wrote to the governor, “I have not been able to hire anyone from the community in over two years … absolutely no one applies to work.”

That’s likely a function of higher pay at other jobs; the average wage in the city of Delta is $18.13 per hour. Most program participants made less – no more than about $16 per hour. It is hard to attract un-incarcerated workers at these wages when even low-end rent in the city for a one-bedroom apartment costs $944 per month. And while appeals to the free market are commonly heard from employers resisting wage increases, they begin to ring hollow when the only workers who will accept those wages are literally captives. As Delta City Manager Elyse Casselberry said, “We’re just triaging it right now.”

For the prisoner-workers, the loss of their below-average wages has been “really painful and difficult,” according to Andy Magel, executive director of Mile High Workshop, a job-training and placement nonprofit in Denver.

The benefits that accompany the chance to do better-paid work are reflected in greatly reduced recidivism rates for program participants, according to a DOC report: 4.1% compared to DOC’s overall recidivism rate of 8.8.% in 2020.

A total of 325 state prisoners participated in the program since its inception in 2019, taking the opportunity to save money and prepare for their release. Without those jobs, Magel says “the prisoners are coming into the community … with very little preparation and no money in their savings account and no job.”

Luckily for employers, work-release or alternative sentencing programs still operate in several local jails, including Littleton Jail in Arapahoe County; Jefferson County Jail in Golden; Weld County Jail in Greeley; El Paso County Jail in Colorado Springs; Douglas County Jail in Castle Rock; Larimer County Jail in Fort Collins; and the Boulder County Jail.

Sources: 5280, Colorado Sun, Denver Post

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