The Long Road Home

Why so many parolees go back to prison, and how a new approach could help turn them around.

"Welcome to the John Inmann Work and Family Center. Welcome home."

Mario Salinas stands in a cramped conference room, studying the faces of the eight men and one woman gathered around the table. It's half-past nine on a Tuesday morning, but the director's orientation speech always begins the same way. The same words, met by the same impassive looks from his solemn, semi-detached audience.

"We can only help if you're willing to do your part," Salinas says. "If you don't already have a job, you need to get a job. You need to stay on top of these obligations."

Ray Maestes builds relationships with "felon-friendly" 
employers, continuing the work of John Inmann, who's 
remembered in a plaque at the center named after 
John Johnston
Ray Maestes builds relationships with "felon-friendly" employers, continuing the work of John Inmann, who's remembered in a plaque at the center named after him.

Three brown faces, three white, three black. Today's arrivals are fairly typical of the people who wander into the conference room each weekday morning. Hunkered in a squat, spartan building on Federal Boulevard, the center sees about fifty new customers every week, a steady stream of the thousands of state prisoners who return to the metro area each year, either on parole or to complete their sentence in community corrections. They come because they were sent here by a parole officer or caseworker, or because they're broke and have nowhere else to go.

"This is a critical time for you. The next couple of months there could be a lot of chaos in your world. Alcohol and drug issues. Re-establishing old relationships. Forty to 50 percent of you are at risk of returning to prison."

Salinas hands out a piece of paper with the words "THE TUNNEL" at the top. Underneath are drawings of a stick figure entering a tube, "the tunnel of change," and reaching a point of crisis halfway along the journey. Mr. Stick has to choose whether to turn back, to his "life of chaos," or proceed through pain and darkness to a sunny "life of satisfaction" waiting at the other end of the tunnel.

"There's a lot of stress," Salinas says. "Barriers. Some of you have been away for a long time. It's almost like traveling to a foreign country. You come back to this country, and everything has changed."

Across the table, a trim, gray-haired man named Roy scopes the handout. A grin flickers briefly across his square jaw. Another country -- got that right.

Roy has spent most of the past quarter-century in the system, serving time for a 1975 armed-robbery conviction and subsequent walkaways and screwups. He got off the Department of Corrections bus yesterday. He spent the night in a shelter. One day on the streets, and he's already overwhelmed. Counselors and parole officers are shoving papers at him, he's got a pile of fees to pay and people to see, he's toting around all these notes and bus schedules and business cards, and he's just about ready to scream.

Some people say Roy has an attitude, but he doesn't see it that way. He just hasn't found his footing yet. Later, after the orientation is over and he can head outside for a cigarette, he will try to explain.

"People are different out here," he says. "People say things that you just wouldn't say to a person inside. You got these smart-alecks and wiseguys. You ask them something politely and you get a wisecrack."

Roy doesn't look like the sort of person you'd want to crack wise about. He has the well-scrubbed, well-sanded features of a veteran con; there's a coiled tension in his walk and a glacier in his stare. Statistically, guys like him -- violent offense, long sentence, scant ties to the community and few prospects -- are among the highest risks to land back in prison weeks after their release. But Roy says he wants to beat the odds.

He's come to the right place.

Launched in a space donated by a church four years ago, the Inmann Work and Family Center has evolved into a collaborative effort between several local, state and federal agencies, with one primary mission: to reduce the astonishing level of recidivism among felons coming out of the prison system. That level isn't simply the result of intransigent criminal behavior, but also the high failure rate of parole. Nearly one out of three of all inmates who went to prison in Colorado last year were "technical returns," sent there not because of a new crime, but because they violated the conditions of their parole -- failing to report a change of address, for example, or flunking a drug test.

The center offers parolees ways to negotiate the hurdles. Its staff provides job-hunting workshops and referrals, tries to reconnect people with their families and works closely with parole officers to address the sometimes crushing restitution fees, back child-support payments and other debts that confront ex-offenders from the day they hit the pavement. Case managers try to hook up strapped clients with their most critical needs, from drug treatment and mental-health services to cheap rent, new work boots or simply a bus pass.

Along the way, Salinas and his upbeat crew work on attitude adjustment, building a path back to society that might keep Mr. Stick -- or Roy, for that matter -- from the kind of despair that leads to bonehead moves and a quick trip back to the joint. Do it enough, and you transform dozens of former prisoners into gainfully employed, taxpaying citizens; you also take their families off the dole, saving the state millions of dollars and making it a safer place to live. Despite the center's modest $1.5 million budget -- cobbled together from various state and federal grants, along with $128,000 from the DOC's community-reintegration program -- the approach seems to be working well enough that the project is now drawing national attention.

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