Op-Ed: Lawmakers Changing Prisoner Life Post-Release

Op-Ed: Lawmakers Changing Prisoner Life Post-Release
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The distance between a prison and an ex-offender's home community generally can be traversed by bus in a few hours. But the real distance an ex-offender must travel from incarceration to successful reintegration can take years, or even decades, to achieve. Thanks to Governor Jared Polis, Colorado Department of Corrections director Dean Williams and Representative Leslie Herod, tangible measures soon will be in place for ex-offenders to succeed.

I know firsthand the difficulties of this transition: I have struggled over the past twenty years to find my place back in society. I have yet to parole from prison with the intent to reoffend. But tens of thousands of felons like myself in Colorado have returned to prison again and again.

Since the 1980s, the prison population in Colorado has quadrupled. Our state now has 22 prisons, a private prison contract for extra bed space, and a Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) annual budget of just under $1 billion. The recidivism rate has basically stayed the same: a whopping 57 to 67 percent each year.

In comparison, Norway's recidivism rate is only 22 percent. That country takes a more proactive approach to prisoners' re-entry, ensuring ex-felons have money, a job and a place to live upon release. A newly released ex-felon in Colorado, on the other hand, receives a bus ticket, $100 in "gate" money and khaki pants, a shirt and a khaki jacket.

Caging human beings isn't something any civilized society, let alone the land of the free and home of the brave, should strive for. And yet, tough-on-crime policies are popular, and the growth of our prisons has created its own sub-economy.

I make no excuses for committing crimes. It's wrong, plain and simple. However, this laissez-faire attitude about re-entry has had a predictable effect on crime: The ex-offender population tends to recidivate due in part to a lack of economic and social support.

When I served my first prison sentence in Colorado in 1999, my one-bedroom apartment in Denver was $650 a month. Now, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,540. It would take nearly $5,000 to move into a new apartment, considering all of the fees and deposits.

Back then, I worked at Dixons Downtown Grill earning $12 an hour as a line cook, plus one very generous shift meal. Today, I certainly couldn't walk into Racines (Dixons' still-operational sister restaurant) and expect to earn $24 an hour flipping burgers just because my rent doubled. This fact creates tension for every soon-to-be-released prisoner.

One of Governor Polis's first orders of business, even before he officially started his job, was to appoint a new director of the CDOC. Dean Williams, from Alaska's correctional system, is an excellent match for Colorado. Polis and Williams would like to see more ex-felons succeed and the prison population reduced to end Colorado's dependency on private prison contracts for bed space. One of Williams's pet projects is to convince private-sector employers to hire prisoners for the prevailing wage. No more wiping out a microwave for 90 cents a day. No more $100 in gate money, since prisoners could theoretically have thousands saved.

The opposition would say that inmates are stealing good jobs from law-abiding citizens, but that's nonsense. Colorado's population is approximately 5.6 million people. Its prison population is 21,000, and Williams is talking about maybe 4,000 jobs, tops.

For her part, Representative Herod introduced and successfully passed ban-the-box legislation that would eliminate questions on job forms that inquire about prior convictions. In another bill, she extended re-entry funding and services for up to one year after a prisoner or parolee discharges their sentence.

Taking a proactive approach to ex-offender re-entry needs positively impacts all Coloradans. It costs $40,000 to house a single state prisoner for a year. Every ex-felon who succeeds saves Colorado taxpayers $500,000 in incarceration and court costs over a ten-year period. Multiply that by a conservative 4,000-person reduction of ex-offenders coming back to prison, and in that same ten-year period, Colorado taxpayers would save $2 billion. These savings could be utilized in more vital areas, like education, infrastructure improvements and healthcare.

Michael J. McCarthy learned how to write in a prison creative-writing workshop. Originally from New York City, he is a Colorado state prisoner serving a parole violation for a nonviolent offense and a previous Westword contributor. He successfully advocates for prison reform through letters to Colorado lawmakers. Contact him at [email protected]

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