By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
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By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
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To Kevin Estep, the enemy he's battling every day is something called Cellblock X. It's an attitude, a set of rules, a way of being that infects prisoners and their keepers alike. It's also a recipe for failure that turns parole into a revolving door.
"We take people, we lock them up, and we don't do a whole lot with them," Estep says. "Our expectations gravitate toward, 'Please don't hurt anybody. Here, let's turn on the TV.' CMRC runs from that philosophy. Our goal is to change the Cellblock X survival skills, those behavioral norms and values that tend to evolve inside any cellblock, where violence and intimidation are tools to get your needs met."
Estep got his first prison job at the age of nineteen. Before joining CEC, he spent 23 years in the Texas corrections system and served as a warden at four different prisons, three of which featured a "therapeutic community" approach. The term is borrowed from a type of group psychotherapy in which members of the group take a leading role in their own recovery. In prison, that often translates into a target population of sex offenders or drug addicts helping each other through the treatment process through mutual support and confrontation. Estep brought elements of the TC approach with him to Colorado, along with a contempt for the usual role of television and recreation in a prisoner's daily schedule.
At CMRC, the only televisions are in the day rooms, and getting to watch them or movies on a Saturday night is a privilege doled out to those who progress in status and achievement. The rec yard offers minimal basketball courts and a few cardio and strength machines but no free weights. Social interaction, particularly the group sessions focusing on "identity formation and lifestyle change," are pushed instead.
"Many of the residents come here, not surprisingly, seeing this as a way to get out," Estep says. "They don't see it as a way to change their life. They start doing the same old thing, and that's a source of contention right at the front. We want them to be able to walk a very fine line and be protective of their freedom."
Whether CMRC is actually promoting change you can believe in, as the saying goes, is a matter of debate. Residents say they learn a great deal from hearing about each other's experiences and mistakes in group sessions. But there are differing views of how much input the residents really have in the way the classes are run. The re-entry program is not an approved therapeutic community in DOC's eyes, like the TC program for sex offenders at Arrowhead, and the idea of a user-led, democratic treatment program inside a prison is problematic even in the best of circumstances. Inmates say the new director has brought increasing regimentation to CMRC along with his TC jargon, and that in most units staffers continue to do the majority of the disciplinary "pull-ups" — as well as the "push-ups" for a job well done.
In other words, Cellblock X is still part of the picture. Critics of the re-entry program say it's difficult to preach responsibility to inmates while so little of their daily lives — other than, yes, their attitude — is under their control. And the message can be particularly irksome when the preaching has a strong Higher Power theme, as several of the inescapable signs at CMRC do:
GOD HEARS YOU
I CAN'T...GOD CAN...I THINK I'LL LET HIM
Palatucci denies that CEC tries to indoctrinate inmates in a particular religion. "We've had complaints that there's a religious component to what we do," he says. "It's certainly very visible and spiritual, but it's across all religions. We have services for people of Islamic faith, Native Americans, Jews, Christians. There's no religious element to the curriculum."
Both Estep and Palatucci say they want to see the program evolve further. In other states, CEC has brought in former residents as counselors or staff; the company has also allowed residents to shed their prison tunics for street clothes as they progress through different phases of the program. Such innovations would have been unthinkable in the Colorado prison system just a few years ago, but DOC now allows ex-offenders to serve as volunteers and mentors in some areas and may allow CEC to develop other incentives for its residents to succeed.
"We're shifting our focus and our culture to re-entry," says DOC spokeswoman Katherine Sanguinetti. "Some of our leadership is already swinging the boat in that direction. We're going to see the department fitting in more with CEC's philosophy."
Wallace Eckersley is trying to fit in, too. The 56-year-old inmate has served 21 years of a forty-year sentence for kidnapping, robbery and attempted murder. The bizarre crime stems from a time when he was drinking heavily and living on the streets. Eckersley and another panhandler abducted a Colorado Springs woman from a parking lot; Eckersley drove while his partner stabbed the woman and threw her out of her car. The case became notorious because Eckersley was lurching toward trial at the same time that his brother, Baseball Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley, was helping steer the Oakland Athletics to the first of three straight trips to the World Series.