The Long Road Home
"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."
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.
"Resources for people leaving prison have always been minimal," says Salinas, a veteran criminal-justice activist who became the center's first full-time director two years ago. "A pair of shoes, a cheap suit, a bus ticket -- that was all the system ever did. Even now, very few centers like this exist anywhere in the country."
As the orientation session winds down, Salinas tells the new arrivals about the center's database of job leads and its resource room, where clients can craft their resumés and work the phones. He stresses the importance of signing in every visit ("Parole officers do call and check to see if you've been here") and keeping the place tidy.
"We can't do it all for you," he says. "But we have a lot of resources in the community. Our goal is for you to stay in the community. Your goal is to take care of your obligations and make it to the next step, do the right things for those you love."
The new arrivals have questions. A young man with a goatee and a ponytail goes first.
"Who is John Inmann?" he asks.
Salinas smiles. "That's an interesting story," he says.
Hardly a week goes by that Lance Clem doesn't think about John Inmann. A former aide to Governor Roy Romer, Clem now has Inmann's old job and cumbersome title -- director of the Office of Drug Control and System Improvement in the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice -- and reminders of Inmann's work are all around him.
Many people in the DCJ have fond memories of Inmann, a dedicated employee with a distinctive handlebar mustache and a deadpan wit -- but none more so, it seems, than Clem. "John had a great sense of humor and was very knowledgeable," he says. "We didn't always agree, but I realized after a while that he never did anything without a good reason."
Years ago, Inmann worked on developing drug- and alcohol-treatment programs for prisoners in Cañon City, leading to a lifelong interest in the problem of recidivism. At DCJ, he was in an ideal position to track the effects of Colorado's prison-building boom during the 1980s and 1990s, and he didn't like what he was seeing.
The statistics were dismal. Over the course of fifteen years, the state's prison population doubled, then doubled again, outpacing the rate of growth of the state as a whole. The percentage of inmates serving time for nonviolent drug offenses also quadrupled. Equally alarming, the one-year recidivism rate was rising sharply, from 27 percent in 1992 to 40 percent in 1999. By the late 1990s, more than half of all Colorado felons could be counted on to return to prison within three years of their release.
Part of the problem, Inmann realized, had to do with a series of shortsighted but politically popular legislative decisions. Tougher sentencing laws for low-level drug offenders. Inadequately funded treatment programs. And, perhaps most damaging of all, a parole system that was becoming overburdened and unworkable.
Colorado's system of discretionary parole, under which an inmate can earn early release through good behavior, dates back to 1899. But in 1993, the legislature decided to add a period of up to five years of mandatory parole that prisoners must complete, whether they serve their full prison sentence or not. The law was supposed to stop a prisoner from "killing his number" behind bars so that he could emerge without any supervision; instead, it may have seriously aggravated the re-entry problem it was seeking to address.
One consequence of mandatory parole is that the parole board is granting fewer and fewer early releases. Five years ago, almost 30 percent of prisoners seeing the board were granted parole; now it's down to 20 percent. The board claims to have granted parole to nearly 5,000 people last year, out of more than 16,000 applications, but that number is misleading: Of the 4,784 "successful" applicants, all but 2,000 of them were "released on MRD" -- in other words, their parole doesn't become effective until their mandatory release date from prison. Fifty-two percent of the DOC's inmates are past their parole eligibility date, but fewer than 1 percent of those who see the board receive parole the first time around; the rest must return year after year, only to face a high probability that they won't get out until the day the system is forced to release them.
Cutting down on the number of discretionary paroles increases the size and cost of the prison population, of course, and mandatory parole has only compounded the problem. As the parole period increases, so does the opportunity for technical violations. Resentful of the additional time tacked onto the end of their sentences or incapable of meeting the conditions of parole, growing numbers of offenders are being revoked and sometimes spending the rest of their mandatory parole time in prison. On average, a revoked parolee spends an additional twelve months in prison, at a cost of around $27,000; the technical violations alone now cost the state an estimated $63 million a year. Significantly, the number of parole violators who are self-revoking (waiving their right to a revocation hearing and requesting that they be sent back to prison) has skyrocketed since the mandatory-parole provisions kicked in, from 186 in 1998 to 1,248 last year.
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."
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."
Ray Maestes barrels into the conference room like an old-timey evangelist. "Who has a job?" he asks.
Three hands go up. Maestes, the DOC "employer-relations specialist" who heads the center's job development program, beams at their owners. "You are blessed, brothers," he says. "Those of you who don't have jobs need to stay for the workshop taught by this nice lady over here."
The nice lady is Alison Schwedner, who also works on employment issues for the DOC. As she launches into her presentation, Roy stays in his seat. So does Rudy, the young man who asked Salinas about John Inmann. (Several parolees interviewed for this article asked that only their first names be used.)
Elroy Isaac stays, too. The clock is ticking for all of them, but for Isaac, it's almost high noon. The man needs a job.
Isaac is 47 years old and hails from San Diego. He'd been in Denver only a few months when he was picked up on a drug charge. Three-year sentence, three years mandatory parole. He hasn't reached the parole part yet, but last month he was sent to a halfway house. The management there gave him two weeks to find a job, then another two weeks, and if he doesn't come through after that, they could send him back to prison. The market is terrible and he doesn't know the city, not nearly well enough to find the kind of warehouse production or assembler job he's looking for, so here he is at the Work and Family Center, listening intently to the nice lady's advice.
Schwedner talks about where to look for jobs. She talks about the need to find a survival job while looking for a better job. She talks about how to fill out job applications, taking special care with the question about prior felony convictions. Be totally honest, she urges. Expect a background check. And be prepared to explain yourself at an interview, using what the center calls the Incarceration Speech.
Assuming the role of job interviewer, she asks Isaac what he would tell a prospective employer about his conviction.
Isaac studies his hands. "I was convicted for possession of drugs," he says. "I was enticed by the excitement of the money. I feel like I have learned a big lesson in the error that I made, and I'm starting to better myself."
Schwedner glances around the room. "Would you guys hire him?"
"Kind of iffy," Rudy says. "He didn't really look at you. When I talk to someone, I look 'em right in the eye."
Roy makes eye contact. His eyes are blank. "Which one?"
Schwedner explains the Incarceration Speech. "I recommend that when you're asked about the conviction, all you want to say is the time and the crime," she says. "If I'm an employer, I don't want to hear that you were caught up in a bad lifestyle or that you were in the wrong place at the wrong time or that you were in a crazy relationship. Who cares? You put yourself in that place.
"Think about how the employer is going to see it. Mr. Isaac, what can you say to me to assure me that you're not going to steal one of my computers to buy drugs?"
"I don't know," Isaac says.
"I'd say I'm in the process of turning my life around," Rudy says.
Isaac makes a second run at the Incarceration Speech. This one is better. More eye contact. Nothing about the excitement of the dope trade. He talks earnestly about his drug programs, the counseling he's been through, his determination to be successful.
"Are you clean?" Schwedner asks. "For how long?"
"Say that. Just because you go to counseling doesn't mean you're a different person. Let me know that you are."
She turns back to Roy. "How can you assure me that you're not going to get violent in my workplace?"
Roy shrugs. "I don't know how to address that," he says. "I had a lot of problems in the past, but that was a long time ago."
Rudy is not happy with Roy's answer. "You have to put yourself in a survival mode," Rudy tells him. "You got to put your game face on, you know what I mean? You can't be like this hard-ass dude."
"Nobody knows you're a felon until you tell them," Schwedner says. "It's very important that you get an opportunity to explain who you are and that you make the most of that opportunity."
The session gives Isaac some new ideas for the job hunt, some tips on how to stop selling himself short. Warehouse jobs are scarce and time is running out, which is why so many people in his position, regardless of their skills, end up mopping floors or flipping burgers. A parole officer or case manager gives you ten to twenty working days to find a permanent job. In the meantime, you're supposed to work day labor to meet expenses -- while still attending every group meeting and mandated treatment program at the halfway house, providing urine samples on demand and dropping everything to call in any time your keepers feel like checking on you.
"You got a lot of people working $6-an-hour jobs and having attitudes because it's not the kind of work they want to do," Isaac says. "But they don't have a lot of time to look."
Isaac is not above considering a $6-an-hour position himself. Survival job, then maybe something better down the line. But he also has some accounting experience, and the numbers don't look good. He pays $93 a week rent at the halfway house. He owes $1,800 in restitution, which will hoover 20 percent from his gross pay until satisfied. His drug classes cost him another $100 a month. Even at $8 an hour, he'll be lucky to have two nickels to rub together at the end of the month.
"Then they want you to have a thousand dollars in savings to come out of the halfway house," Isaac says. "Come on. There's no way."
Complaints about how parole and halfway-house restrictions get in the way of job hunting are common among the center's clientele. Out in the lobby, William Hartford and Derrick Murillo are comparing notes. Hartford has a forgery conviction for using his brother's name when he was pulled over for driving without a license; a subsequent parole violation (driving, again) landed him in a halfway house, where he's required to take domestic-violence and drug and alcohol classes -- even though he insists his crime had nothing to do with any of those issues.
"I just do the programs," Hartford says. "If you try to fight them, it tends to bite you in the ass."
But doing the programs, which cost him $200 a month, isn't getting him out of hock. In three months of steady work at a print shop, he's managed to save exactly $300.
Murillo is also doing time in a halfway house after a parole revocation, the result of two "hot UAs" -- flunked urinalysis tests -- that sent him back to prison for nine months. He's got his share of classes to attend, too, but what torques him is the requirement that any job he takes have a "phone location" where he can be reached at all times. No cell phones, for obvious reasons.
"You can't get a job you want, like landscaping or construction, 'cause there's no phone location," Murillo says. "You got to take these restaurant jobs. Six dollars an hour, and I got five kids to support. I could have had a job and paid my restitution a long time ago. Instead, I'm $800 in the hole."
Whatever their gripes, the center's clients tend to agree on one thing: The place is a godsend. A case manager huddles with Murillo to see what can be done about his pinched finances. Hartford speaks in hushed tones about how much he appreciates the staff and its dedication. Rudy, who heard about the center from a guy he met in rehab, scores a bus pass.
"All I wanted was help with transportation," says Rudy, who's on parole and living with his sister. "I'm pretty confident I'll find a job. Thank God I have a lot of family support. They load you up with so much stuff that some guys can't handle it. They go back to drinking and doing drugs because they figure the system is setting them up for a fall."
Elroy Isaac leaves the center thinking about job-hunting strategies and how he'll handle the next real employer interview. Survival job, warehouse job, whatever comes up -- he's going to impress the hell out of them.
Gilbert is washing dishes, but it's not one of those restaurant jobs. It's one of those dad jobs.
Elbows deep in a kitchen sink full of suds in a Federal Heights duplex, Gilbert is multi-tasking the way only a single parent can. He's got the pans soaking and dinner simmering on the stove. His two older boys are quietly doing their homework. The youngest is out in the yard, playing with relatives. He dropped his teenage daughter off at her after-school job half an hour ago. A film crew is shooting footage of his routine for a documentary that will showcase the efforts of the Inmann Work and Family Center, and a reporter is asking him questions and not offering to dry - but hey, Gilbert has it all under control.
Gilbert is considered one of the center's success stories -- not only because he connected with a good job, but because he reconnected with his family. Sentenced to four years in prison for theft, he petitioned the courts from behind bars to keep his kids from vanishing into foster care; their mother, he says, disappeared some time ago. The parole board turned him down the first time around. He went through drug and alcohol programs and was paroled after two years.
Soon after his release, he landed a job at Coors, through a training program the company offers for ex-offenders. He's learning a solid trade -- welding -- and earning a living wage. Going to the Inmann center didn't land him the job, he says, but it pointed him in the right direction. He took parenting classes, found a four-bedroom apartment and references to vouch for him, and collected his four children from their grandmother's house. At 41, he is raising them on his own and paying child support for a fifth child by another woman.
The center continues to help him in various ways, including occasionally bankrolling a trip to the grocery store. "Money is tight," he says. "They've helped a lot. It's been overwhelming at times. There were times I wanted to give up. But my goal was to get back with my kids, and I couldn't give up on that."
Many of the center's clients come out of prison estranged from their families. In some cases, they may owe thousands of dollars in back child support and not know it, having never received the support orders or discovered that the meter kept running while they were inside. Valerie Zamora, who directs the center's programs for non-custodial parents, tries to mediate the situation, working out reasonable payment plans with the agencies charged with collecting child support. Last year, she says, the center's approach more than doubled the number of clients making payments; most of those who aren't paying child support have already gone back to prison for other reasons.
According to Zamora, the majority of parolees she deals with are interested in meeting their parental obligations, but it takes a steady paycheck to make it happen. Issues of work and family are so deeply intertwined that center staff tend to see the job quest as a drama affecting many lives, not just the hapless parolee.
Ray Maestes, the center's bustling employer-relations specialist, is constantly on the lookout for new leads, always "planting seeds," as he puts it. It's not unusual for him to ask, in casual conversation with new acquaintances, "Have you ever thought about hiring an ex-offender? Would you think about it?"
A few large companies, such as Coors or Aramark, the sporting-event concessionaire, have well-lauded policies of hiring ex-offenders. Other employers in the metro area are willing to hire them but don't want to be known as "felon-friendly" because of possible backlash from customers. Maestes generally has more luck with mom-and-pop operations than big, impersonal corporations. "A lot of our success comes from small companies that we can cultivate a relationship with," he says.
Maestes tells employers that, depending on the kind of work involved, parolees can make excellent hires. They're often more motivated than the average employee because losing their job could result in revocation. They are more closely monitored for drug and alcohol use, too. Worried about theft? Maestes tells employers how they can qualify for a $5,000 federal bond, without charge, if they hire an ex-offender -- while pointing out that the actual rate of claims filed under the program is surprisingly low, around 1 percent. There are also tax credits available.
Some employers perk up at the mention of tax incentives. With others, Maestes talks about civic duty and making the neighborhood a safer place -- idle hands and all that. Some just want willing, trainable hires who can do the job. ("Everybody deserves a second chance," says Mark Kelly, owner of the Hoffbrau Tavern on Santa Fe. "I love to teach people this business, and the guys they've sent me have been hard workers.") Once he's got someone in the door, Maestes makes sure to follow up and see if things are working out -- and if there might be any other openings. Successful hires are hauled back to the center and paraded before other job-seekers, like astronauts returning from a dangerous mission: See, it is possible to land a felon on the moon.
"We share our successes," Salinas says. "We celebrate every time someone gets an $18-an-hour job."
There's no absence of success stories. Center staffers talk about the man who killed a clerk during a liquor-store robbery, served 22 years for murder and came out an articulate, remorseful paralegal. He would get halfway through the hiring process, only to be turned down once his offense became known. (Murderers are tough hires, second only to sex offenders.) Finally, he landed an entry-level telemarketing job. He's now the director of human resources for the company that hired him.
There's the billing analyst with a bachelor's degree who landed a $50,000 job with a major corporation. The guy who had no experience as a diesel mechanic but took an aptitude test and is now earning a decent salary fixing big rigs for a major chain of truck stops. And people like Gilbert, who's learning a trade and keeping his family together.
Maestes's favorite story concerns a woman who came out of prison with a drug record and, with the center's help, landed a job with a construction company. Eventually she became an administrative assistant in the human-resources department at a much larger company.
"She started calling us for painters, framers, construction workers," he says. "We got one guy a job at $22 an hour, one of our all-time highs."
Six years ago, Rich Utech embarked on a modest experiment. Convinced that his efforts to assist inmates preparing for parole could benefit from some practical experience, the DOC employee boarded a bus to Denver. He brought with him a few phone numbers and $100, the same amount of money the DOC issues to parolees on their first trip back to the streets.
Utech checked into a shelter and went to work moving furniture through a day-labor service. That he had no trouble finding a job surprised him; the company never inquired about his background. But then, the work wasn't all that lucrative, either. After three days, he'd covered his expenses and still had the hundred bucks, but it didn't look like he'd be moving out of the shelter in the near future.
"The scariest thing was realizing that could be a permanent way of life," Utech says. "You don't make enough money to get ahead."
The trip reshaped Utech's approach to his work as a community-reintegration instructor at the Buena Vista prison complex. In classes that stretch over ninety days, up to six hours a day, he stresses the need for inmates headed for release to brush up on their street smarts and money management, to be prepared to deal with alien technology such as computers and voice mail, to develop a plan of action focused on specific job skills.
"If it's done right, reintegration starts when they start in the prison system," he says. "Unfortunately, the general mindset is very short-term. They're not worried about what happens two years from now. They want to know what's for dinner."
Many of Utech's students are afraid to come out. Afraid of the stigma they'll face -- "These guys all think their DOC number is tattooed on their forehead," he says -- and, perhaps, afraid of what they might find out about themselves and the strength of their addictions. But Utech tells them it's possible to conquer their fears. His own program is proof of that; the recidivism rate among his groups over the past few years is running at around 20 percent, half the average for prisoners statewide.
"When somebody revokes and goes back to prison, he tells everybody that parole's a setup and it's impossible to make it out there," Utech notes. "I tell them, 'The people you hear this from got revoked. You're hearing from the losers. You never hear from the ones who made it.'"
Utech also tells them to be patient and set their goals higher than day labor. "It turns out there's a magic number," he says. "When you can earn ten, eleven dollars an hour, your comeback rate just drops off the table. If you make enough money, you don't come back."
Utech's program is part of an increasing push within the DOC for more comprehensive and effective reintegration efforts. The shift is often credited to former director John Suthers, who'd begun to champion re-entry programs shortly before he left the department two years ago to become a United States attorney. At present, only about half of the state's parolees go through the voluntary pre-release programs -- there are more people coming out than there are slots available -- but the department hopes to boost those numbers in coming years.
Yet even a full menu of vocational training, treatment programs and transitional services such as the Inmann Center can only take the process so far. It's up to the parolee to make it work. Steven Chorak, the manager of the DOC's community-reintegration program, argues that a great deal also depends on the community: the potential employers, landlords and neighbors who can either help or hinder ex-cons in their long journey back.
"Ultimately, the community has to accept some responsibility for people coming back," he says. "And 95 percent of them are coming back, sooner or later. I see some beginnings in that direction, but I also see some resistance."
Like the population it serves, the John Inmann Work and Family Center is at a critical crossroads. A four-year federal grant that has funded several of its staff positions runs out in June of next year. With so many other programs on the chopping block, its funding through the DOC and other state sources is also on shaky ground. Salinas says the center's leadership is "looking at a lot of options" to ensure its sustainability.
For years, lawmakers have responded to public anxiety about crime by passing stiffer sentences and building more prisons, while slashing treatment and rehabilitation programs as "soft on crime." Local media fearmongers have been unindicted accomplices in this game, airing hysteria-pumping, sweeps-week reports on the felons among us without ever making distinctions between truly dangerous, chronic offenders and those who are trying to leave their life (or moment) of crime behind them.
Such simplemindedness makes no sense to Michael Lindsey, who heads the Inmann Center's pilot program dealing with serious and violent offenders. "Felons are a very diverse population," he says. "We need to stop lumping everyone together and do better risk management. We need to stop demonizing people and look at this problem in a more logical fashion."
Lindsey is no bleeding heart. Two decades ago, he was one of the founders of AMEND, a pioneering, confrontational approach to dealing with male batterers and stalkers. Long before it was fashionable, he was an outspoken advocate of intensive supervision of violent offenders -- as opposed to, say, sentencing them to a few weeks of anger-management classes. ("Teaching a predatory felon how to take a time-out is likely to make him a better predator," he says.) His pilot program at the center involves taking a small group of violent, parole-eligible offenders through careful screening, close monitoring and a graduated series of steps back to society, a process that can take years.
"This is not about providing social services for felons," he says of the program. "This is about providing community safety."
Yet as Lindsey sees it, public safety hinges in part on providing jobs and other essentials for returning offenders, not slamming the door on them. "Some of these guys just need to stay in prison," he says. "But for the rest, you need to get them attached to a pro-social world or they'll get attached to an anti-social one. If you can address some of their needs, then you drive down risk.
"If we really want to see community safety increase, we can't just think the system is going to do it. The police and the courts can't do it. The community has to do it, block by block."
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