Can a troubled Colorado prison change the way inmates think? | News | Denver | Denver Westword | The Leading Independent News Source in Denver, Colorado

Can a troubled Colorado prison change the way inmates think?

Jay Lewis assumes the position. He slouches, arms folded across his chest, knee bent and foot braced on the wall behind him. He looks like your typical green-tunic-clad felon, lazily taking in the passing show at the Cheyenne Mountain Re-Entry Center, a 750-bed private prison in Colorado Springs. "He's jailin',"...
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Jay Lewis assumes the position. He slouches, arms folded across his chest, knee bent and foot braced on the wall behind him. He looks like your typical green-tunic-clad felon, lazily taking in the passing show at the Cheyenne Mountain Re-Entry Center, a 750-bed private prison in Colorado Springs.

"He's jailin'," explains fellow inmate Charles Cook. "That's something we try to deter. If I saw Mr. Lewis doing that for real, I'd pull him up on that and tell him that he's going back to his old behaviors."

Lewis straightens up immediately. "Thank you," he says. "I'll get right on top of that."

The demonstration is neatly scripted, like a lot of interactions among inmates at CMRC. But that seems to be part of the appeal of the place to prisoners like Cook and Lewis; it's a new script for convicts who've found that the old ways haven't gotten them anywhere they want to be. At CMRC, the trappings and the terminology defy expectation. Inmates are known as "residents" and call each other "mister"; the warden is the "director." Staffers dress like corporate executives and motivational coaches rather than prison guards. The living units feature spartan eight- and twelve-man rooms with bunk beds rather than barred cells. Huge signs line the corridors, exhorting residents in an almost Orwellian pitch:







Although classified as a medium-security prison, the facility is a radical departure from the typical lockup operated by the Colorado Department of Corrections. Most of CMRC's residents are nearing the end of their sentences and are likely to be paroled soon; about 20 percent are parole violators getting a little attitude adjustment before hitting the streets again. Under a DOC contract that pays the private operators $52 per head per day, the facility tries to prepare inmates for release by offering basic education, job-hunting and computer skills, drug treatment programs and classes in what could loosely be described as "lifestyle change" — efforts to challenge well-established prison culture by, for example, having inmates confront each other over unacceptable behavior.

There are eighteen possible levels of "intervention" that residents and staff can try, Cook explains, before a misbehaving resident might get thrown into the hole or out of the program. His mild rebuke of Lewis is known as a verbal pull-up, and the only right response to a pull-up is thank you, I'll get right on that. If a resident provides a less compliant answer, along the lines of get your face out of my business before I shank your sorry ass, stronger measures are taken. The offender might have to face his peers in a staff-run meeting, standing in a spot in the middle of the room marked by the outline of two large red feet.

"A lot of guys come here with a sense of closed-mindedness," Cook says. "We're just trying to open them up. There's no chain of command among residents, but there is a line of communication. We have static groups, we have hot seats, we have confrontation groups. Staff are present and overseeing things, but a great deal of it is actually facilitated by the residents."

Like many in his unit, Cook is a firm believer in the CMRC approach. He points proudly to his name listed as unit coordinator at the top of a "structure board," delineating the various lines of communication within his pod. He has been at the prison since February and expects it might be another year before he makes parole. "This is how I want to be when I'm released," he says. "I don't want to go back to DOC and get into a situation where I have to abide by that convict mentality."

Some residents can be almost evangelistic about the program, which they hope will better their chances of being granted an early parole. Serving a ten-year stretch for assault and burglary of a Taco Bell, Eric Erickson has been turned down by the state parole board three times already. He calls his arrival at CMRC three months ago "a huge blessing."

"It's not like DOC, where you can sleep and do nothing all day," he says. "At 6 a.m., it's feet on the floor for everyone. I've seen some good, positive things since I've been here. The staff are respectful and helpful, and I've seen this program help other inmates get out."

But not every journey through CMRC has been so positive. Regular visits by DOC monitors have turned up a slew of management and operational blunders at the prison since it opened three years ago. Documents obtained by Westword show a history of staff shortages and high turnover, inadequate training and security lapses, assaults and gang activity, and several instances of female staffers being fired for fraternization or even sexual relationships with residents. And some inmates who have completed the program claim the place has more problems with violence, contraband and bogus classes than the inspection reports suggest.

"It's a joke," says Douglas Bullard, a 45-year-old parolee who left CMRC in September. "The only time they had people doing what they were supposed to do was when the director was coming through with his cronies. Other than that, it's a free-for-all. You got kids running amok. You got people climbing around in the ceilings, breaking into offices and stealing stuff. You got booze, you got drugs, you got guys smoking in the bathroom. You're supposed to be confronted by other inmates, but the staff are the only ones who are doing it."

"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.

"He decided to embarrass this guy in front of the others," Schuett says. "But on that piece of paper was my name and DOC number."

A few days later, Schuett was feeling ill and trying to get some rest after class. He heard other inmates talking about the report and saying there was going to be trouble. He got up from his bunk and went looking for a staff member. He couldn't find one. He was locked in the unit with the man he'd reported.

"There was no OC [correctional officer] on that floor for close to two hours," Schuett says. "I thought I would diffuse the situation by laying down. I didn't figure he would attack a sixty-year-old man over something as stupid as that. I woke up to a foot coming into my face."

When it was over, Schuett had a "pretty messed-up" face and shards of a hard contact lens in his left eye. He spent his remaining time at CMRC in administrative segregation for his own protection, where he says he met other inmates with similar stories of gang-related attacks. Now living in a halfway house, he maintains that the level of violence at the prison during his time there was much higher than officials admit.

Director Estep denies that any staff member deliberately put Schuett at risk, but the inmate's version is "kind of close" to his own understanding of the incident, which occurred before he took over. "We had a lot of training after that happened," he says.

CEC regional director Chris Petrozzi says that Schuett tried to use the incident as leverage to get placement in the community — a decision that isn't in CMRC's hands. Still, Petrozzi acknowledges that Schuett might have had a good reason for wanting to get out of CMRC. "We probably could have done things differently to minimize the perception that he had snitched," he admits. "But we believe there was some element of goal-directed behavior on his part."

Other inmates who spent time at CMRC in 2007 and early 2008 have similarly lurid accounts of gang violence and staff indifference. "CMRC is the only place I've seen a kid put a lock in a sock and open the melon on this dude in three or four different places," Bullard says. "There was blood everywhere. The kid went to the hole for nine days and left on parole three days later."

The number of reported assaults at CMRC isn't unusual for a prison of its size. But inmates say many fights go unreported. "I never personally felt I was in danger," says Stephen Valle-Terstege, who completed the re-entry program late last year — and who has the kind of size (6' 3", 250 pounds) that discourages harassment. "But the very first thing I noticed when I walked through the door was how many guys had black eyes. It was amazing, like they all just had a brawl yesterday. The staff was pretty blasé about it."

Yet even Bullard, one of the place's harshest critics — he's filed a grievance claiming that he developed a medical condition because of poor care at CMRC — concedes that the level of violence had dropped by the time he left two months ago. "When I first got there, people weren't just getting beat up," he says. "They were going to the hospital."

CEC's Palatucci says the operation faced a number of challenges in its early days, partly because officials agreed to help DOC house an influx of parole violators, sent back to prison for a short stretch. A separate "return to custody" facility that was supposed to be built in southern Colorado was put on hold, and at one point CMRC had more parole violators than pre-release inmates. It's not a good mix; the violators know they have a definite release date (usually 180 days or less) and are thus harder to manage and less likely to participate in programs. Cheyenne Mountain houses violators separately from the pre-release population, as if trying to prevent contamination, but inmates say the group was still a disruptive presence. "They have no incentive to do anything, and that attitude just feeds," Bullard explains.

Estep also blames the violators for CMRC's incidence of positive drug tests, which is higher than that of other private prisons in the state. One random urinalysis test last year produced seven positives out of 27 subjects — a 25 percent dirty score, far worse than at any DOC facility. But five of the seven were positive for marijuana, the other two for tobacco, and Estep denies that his shop has any serious drug issues. The number of parole violators coming back to CMRC with drugs still in their system skew the results, he explains, as does the program's aggressive use of baseline and "reasonable suspicion" tests. When the tests on new arrivals are removed from the equation, the rate of positives is actually below average.

But former resident Valle-Terstege, who has done time at three other prisons in the state, says CMRC had more drugs than he'd seen anywhere else — and not just weed and tobacco. "I saw heroin for the first time at CMRC, and cocaine," he says. "In an eight-man room, you can't get away from it. Their med line is the longest I've ever seen, too. There were a lot of prescription drugs that, taken in sufficient quantity, would result in an altered state of consciousness."

The prison has struggled with other contraband issues, too. According to DOC monitoring reports, homemade hooch was a persistent problem until officials finally got better control of the theft of sugar, yeast and fruit from the kitchen stores. (Estep says the homebrew problem is "pretty isolated" now.) Inmates have taken advantage of security flaws to sneak into offices to use phones and, in one celebrated instance, raided computer equipment for a motor to use in a makeshift tattoo gun. Flirtations and worse with female staff have been another distraction.

"At least three women got fired for having sexual relations with inmates while I was there," Valle-Terstege says. "Two others were investigated for sex with inmates, and another for having sex with a staff member. You had women coming to work in skintight clothing — and these guys haven't been with women for years. They'd deliberately provoke us because they liked the attention. Some liked to get guys in trouble."

That may have been the case last year, but it's a different environment now, insists current resident Erickson. "When I was in Buena Vista, I heard that CMRC was full of dope and female guards were having sex," he says. "I haven't seen any drugs — none. I haven't seen any female staff doing anything wrong. It's all a bunch of BS."

Estep says he's fired "one or two" female employees for improper relationships with inmates. The effect of these transgressions, and others, on the overall quality of the re-entry program is difficult to gauge. DOC monitors have expressed a variety of concerns about the size of the classes, the training of the staffers conducting them and even the legitimacy of what is transpiring. One scathing report, written before Estep's arrival, indicates that CMRC administrators were actually faking classes during official tours.

"I was told by staff that a member of the administration had come into their office and offered all inmates in the area a candy bar if they would 'go to computer class and pretend they were working,'" the state inspector wrote. "Inmates gave a consistent account, stating that they had been given merits, candy and tokens to attend classes during tours to promote the appearance of full classes."

The inspector also learned that the "library" shown to visitors was a sham. "On tour days, someone is posted in a room with a bunch of books and a sign-in log, and they pretend that a library is available to inmates," she wrote. "I asked to see the library and was shown the property room and told it used to be there."

The reality of CMRC, the inspector continued, was much different: "An inmate may begin a class, decide he doesn't want to participate and simply leave the class without any expectation of consequences.... The staff acknowledged that inmates have been provided with certificates of completion when they didn't actually attend the class.... Case managers and treatment staff reported they didn't have any way of knowing where individual offenders were during the day, or how they were progressing in the program.... Many of the case managers reported they felt ill-equipped to teach the programs they were required to deliver."

Palatucci denies any attempt to deceive visitors. "I don't find anyone at CEC who has knowledge of that report, so we can't comment," he says. "In general, the claims [made in] the report must be very dated."

Staff and many current residents insist the situation is quite different now. The prison has a real library, with hundreds of books. Class attendance is mandatory, and each resident's day is highly structured. Two full-time teachers help residents obtain their GEDs and fulfill other academic requirements, and others assist with computer training and "lifestyle change." Some classes are "resident-driven," they say, then quickly add that inmates don't actually teach other inmates; they facilitate. (It's DOC policy that inmates can't have authority over other inmates.) But some graduates insist the program still lacks substance.

"The classes were asinine," says Valle-Terstege. "It was the same class over and over. Cognitive restructuring, anger management, criminal lifestyle theory — it was all the same stuff. There was one case manager who would walk in and the guys in the back would start screaming obscenities. He would not speak or make eye contact with anyone until the noise stopped. And it didn't. We'd be in there for forty minutes, and nothing was happening. He would flush beet red and begin to sweat. His was the only class I took where the test was closed-book, and guess what? Everybody cheated."

Bullard says class attendance depends strongly on whether staff assigned to a particular unit regard it as a priority. He had been assigned to work with goats at another prison and was eager to get more practical training — "I knew I wasn't going to get a job as a goat farmer," he says — but found his opportunities at CMRC were limited.

"They preach re-entry, but they don't teach you anything for re-entry," he says. "I am one of the few who actually showed up for class. They've got inmates teaching the curriculum, and it's the same from the day you get there to when you leave. Guys would come to class, sign in and then leave."

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:





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.

Over the past two decades, Wally Eckersley says, he's had only one disciplinary write-up in prison — for smoking. He's done every treatment program available to him. He writes an occasional guest column, "Insights From Inside," for the South Platte Sentinel. He's seen the parole board three times since 2000, and each time he's been told to come back in another two years. He sees the board again this month. "My hope is to get paroled upon completion of this program," he says. "This might be my saving grace, so to speak. I'm being afforded the opportunity to help other people as well as help myself."

Eckersley serves as a voice of experience in his peer counseling classes. Not every resident is prepared to hear what he has to say, though. "Everyone thought this place was the key to reality," he says. "Then you get here, and it turns out a lot of people don't really want to be here. I think they're weeding themselves out.

"In prison, you sit in front of the TV, do your time, and you get out eventually. Over here, you do the work, and the possibility of getting out is a lot better. Having done the time I've done, it's easier for me to approach somebody and tell them what I think they're doing right or wrong."

While he's comfortable with the TC approach, Eckersley would like to see the residents show more initiative in confronting each other, having a stake in each other's progress. "It needs to go a step further," he says. "They have pull-ups and push-ups, but those are basically being done by staff in my unit. Let's do the program. The program works, if people are allowed to work the program."

As he sees it, there's a lot riding on his success. Many long-timers in prison, especially those convicted of violent crimes, have little chance of seeing parole before their mandatory release date. Consequently, they tend to devote little effort to the kinds of programs that might actually help them stay out of prison. If he can persuade the parole board he's deserving of early release, it might pave the way for others.

"There are a lot of people in my situation doing a long period of time who are hoping and praying that I succeed," Eckersley says. "Then the outlook might change for them."

Eckersley discharges his sentence in another nine to thirteen years. The decision about when he will actually taste freedom again is out of his hands, but he figures he's making the best choices he can to bring that moment closer. He's tried everything else the system has to offer. So why not a program that works if people are allowed to work it?

It's a bit like the boundless spiritual optimism of the signs around CMRC, but not quite. The signs suggest that someone with even the faith of a mustard seed can move mountains. But sometimes you need to act as if you have faith before you find it.

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