By Alan Prendergast
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"There is very little control," adds Cecil Mercer, who left CMRC last summer after eleven months. "Every day someone gets beat down, and most of the time it's five or six on one. The last five or six months there, I did not feel safe."
Kevin Estep, CMRC's third director since it opened in 2005, insists that the situation has improved markedly since he arrived last spring and that inmates' stories about chronic assaults are greatly exaggerated. "I've heard the same things you've heard," he says. "But we haven't had a serious assault since I've been here. We do have fights, and we take those very seriously, but I've seen prisons that are much worse than what we have."
Officials at Community Education Centers, the New Jersey-based company that runs CMRC and other re-entry and halfway house programs in 22 states, acknowledge some "glitches" in the early phases of the Colorado Springs operation but point to the company's track record elsewhere. Research studies tracking ex-cons who've been through CEC facilities indicate that they are less likely to commit additional crimes than other parolees. "We've had some growing pains," says CEC senior vice president William Palatucci. "It hasn't been a perfect start-up, by any means. But we have a great deal of confidence in our model and the direction that we're heading."
The stakes are huge — not only for CEC, but for Colorado taxpayers. The state prison budget soared by 127 percent over the past decade, more than double the pace of state government as a whole. The growth has been fueled to a great degree by the increasing failure rate of parole; more than half of the people released from prison in Colorado end up back behind bars within three years ("Over and Over Again," April 6, 2006). Governor Bill Ritter has proposed spending millions on initiatives to reduce recidivism, arguing that investing modestly in preparing parolees for the street saves far more money that would otherwise be required to build more prisons. Last week he presented to lawmakers a plan to spend $10.6 million on such efforts in the next fiscal year; a substantial part of the package would go to drug and mental health treatment and re-entry programs inside prison.
But CMRC's approach to re-entry goes well beyond a few twelve-step programs and anger-management classes. Can oversized signs and slogans break down years of criminal behavior? Can structure boards and hot seats take the place of a convict code built on the principles of no snitching and doing your own time? If a person talks about change relentlessly, like a sound-bite-happy presidential candidate, can that person actually change?
Dywand Julien thinks so. The inmate approves of the "credos, choices and attitudes" every resident has to memorize during orientation. Those three declarations of principles are repeated at every morning and evening meeting at his unit, and he can recite the one about attitude like a yogi invoking his mantra:
"Attitude is more important than facts," he says. "It's more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than what other people say or think or do. It'll make or break a business, a home, a friendship, an organization. The remarkable thing is, you have a choice every day of what your attitude will be.
"We cannot change our past. We cannot change the actions of others. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can change is our attitude."
Estep says the signs and scripts are part of a total immersion in the program's message. "Our goal is to put it on their minds from the moment they wake up until they go to bed: Change is possible," he says. "Change is the only alternative. It has to be consistent and persistent. You can't take a day off from that. It's a full-time deal."
Sherman Schuett didn't need anyone to tell him he might need a little help with the re-entry process. He was sixty years old, with a troubled history of felony charges involving forgery and theft from the elderly. He was serving an eight-year bounce for criminal mischief when he heard about the program at CMRC. He volunteered for it and was moved from Sterling to Colorado Springs last February.
He was soon disappointed — and alarmed — to discover that many other residents hadn't volunteered; in fact, they didn't know they were headed for CMRC until they were on the bus. "They were bringing guys there who didn't want to be there," he remembers, "guys who'd been in medium and higher security and were just moving up the ranks. They were bringing in hard-core gang members who didn't care about making a change. They were there because DOC is packed. You got one small yard for 500 guys, and the problems get carried up to the rooms."
Incensed by the frequent vandalism committed on his floor, Schuett went to a case manager and reported a gangbanger who had punched holes in a wall. In another prison, that would be considered snitching. But staffers encourage CMRC residents to take action and confront problems, and Schuett believed the situation was getting out of hand. Unfortunately, the information was handled quite differently than it would have been in another prison, too. A supervisor left the report in plain view on his desk.