The Long Road Home

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

The law had other impacts, too. When Inmann looked at what services were available to help parolees through the re-entry process, he saw parole officers with staggering caseloads and a patchwork of support agencies that were largely unprepared for the growing parole population. Negotiating the maze required parolees to travel all over town -- often through hostile territory, as it were -- and wait long hours for someone to try to help them puzzle through the basic conundrums of shelter and employment. Little wonder, then, that so many of them quickly got frustrated and did something that would send them back.

This is where Inmann figured he could make a difference. How much better it would be, he thought, if Denver had a one-stop shop for its most reviled residents. Not just a place with jobs posted on a board, but a full-fledged reintegration center, staffed by specialists from several agencies and dedicated to work and family -- the two crucial elements, studies suggest, to keeping people out of prison. As an administrator of federal grant monies, he knew how to secure the driblets of funding a pilot project might require. But he needed a place to put it.

Working with DCJ colleagues and corrections officials, Inmann scouted out possible locations in the Uptown neighborhood. "A number of places they investigated wouldn't work out," Clem recalls, "because of uncooperative landlords -- or uncooperative city council members. They didn't like the idea of a facility in their district where there would be a traffic flow of parolees."

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.

Before he could take the project any further, Inmann became mysteriously ill, struck down by what his wife Pam describes as "one of those mutating viruses you hear about on the news." He was hospitalized late in 1998 and died a few weeks later of pneumonia. He was 52 years old.

"To have him go that fast was a big shock to everybody," says Clem. "I really feel that I lost a friend."

A few months later, Clem had a meeting with Vickey Ricketts, a DOC community-reintegration manager who'd been working with Inmann on the one-stop concept. Despite the Uptown rejections and Inmann's death, the group had never given up on the idea and had finally found a starting point on the west side, at a church on Perry Street. Although staffing and services were very limited, the center was already operating a food bank and winning supporters in the neighborhood. Ricketts wanted Clem's help in seeking additional federal grants.

"What they were doing was very creative, and it made total sense," Clem says. "I told Vicky I would do what I could to help them, on one condition: that they name the place after John."

The center moved to its new quarters on Federal in the summer of 2001. With financial help from the DOC and grants administered through the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, the Denver mayor's office and Clem's office, the operation was able to add several staff positions and expand services. Since its inception four years ago, the center has seen 2,500 people, and Salinas expects the total to reach 6,000 by June of next year. It now offers a wide array of resources and programs targeting specific types of offenders, from non-custodial parents to the mentally ill and serious violent offenders.

"Their concept is becoming a national model," Clem says. "It's always risky to start something innovative with federal money that has a time limit on it. But if they can show a dramatic savings to the public, if they can rein in the expenses on incarcerating prisoners by using alternatives, they can go after other funding."

The project is starting to show the kind of cost-benefit results that Inmann had hoped for, Salinas says. Half of the clients come to the center already employed, but within three months of enrollment, that number climbs to 87 percent, and overall income levels increase as well. "We get people jobs, and they start making more money after they become involved with us," he says.

Recidivism among the center's clients also appears to be lower than in the parole population as a whole; its two-year rate is around 43 percent, compared with a statewide figure of 48 percent. Salinas regards the slight decrease as a significant figure, since it adds up to hundreds of thousands of dollars in saved costs of incarceration. In theory, the center's rate should be higher than average, since parolees with good jobs and stable family situations may never visit the place: Its clientele tends to be the higher-risk types, and 20 to 30 percent of the parolees are homeless.

"People who are without attachments or resources represent a different sort of risk to the community," Salinas says. "We try to focus on that population and do the right thing for all concerned."

Still, the center has its failures, too. "People are going back for a variety of reasons," Salinas says. "New crimes are a small percentage -- probably 3 or 4 percent. Those who go back are usually struggling with drugs, maybe a combination of mental illness and substance abuse. And there are people who can't find a better way to live than that lifestyle."

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