Colorado’s New Corrections Chief: “It's Okay for Us to Question Who We Are”

Dean Williams addresses a graduating class of Corrections employees.
Dean Williams addresses a graduating class of Corrections employees. Courtesy of Department of Corrections
On the afternoon of Thursday, July 25, the auditorium of Pueblo Community College was packed with people who came to support family members and friends entering one of the most dangerous, stressful and controversial career paths in the country.

The 143 new Department of Corrections employees had just graduated from their month-long basic-training course, which every new employee must take. Most will go on to become corrections officers, while others will become nurses, parole officers, social workers or higher-up officials.

The excitement in the air might come off as peculiar or even disturbing from an outsider’s perspective. After all, isn’t the Department of Corrections' mission to lock people up?

But that's not how the new leader of Colorado’s prison system sees its employees or its mission.

"If you talk to most corrections officers, they want to be part of something," Dean Williams says. "They want to be part of helping turn people's lives around."

Almost eight months into his tenure, Williams has a reformative vision of the Department of Corrections that pushes the agency to think of itself as a keystone at the intersection of public safety and social change.

Governor Jared Polis appointed Williams as the executive director of the Department of Corrections in January after his predecessor, Rick Raemisch, retired. Williams inherited a massive state agency, with a nearly $1 billion budget, over 6,000 employees, and a complicated history.

For years, the idea that prison was about turning peoples' lives around would have been almost alien to Colorado's status-quo punitive system. That changed when Tom Clements was appointed executive director in 2011. He was known as a "progressive" reformer who during his tenure closed two prisons, re-evaluated mental health treatment in prisons, and began to phase out the department's heavy reliance on solitary confinement, or "administrative segregation," as the department prefers to call it.

But in a twist of events that rocked the state in 2013, Clements was murdered at the doorstep of his home by a parolee who had spent years in solitary confinement. Since then, the department has been chasing the heels of the changes Clements had begun to make, though some would say that chase has been half-hearted. His successor, Raemisch, drew some publicity early on for a stint in which he spent a night in solitary to examine its effects, and eventually limited the practice of solitary to fifteen days at a time. But the recidivism rate has increased, and the state's average daily prison population has hovered around 20,000 over the past five years. Reformers say that the department has been slow to make changes that would decrease that number.

Williams, who previously served as Alaska’s top corrections chief, wants to get the ball rolling more quickly on more progressive changes than the department has seen before. Advocacy groups and corrections employees say he brings a hopeful perspective. He talks the talk of true reform. But they say they'll be watching him closely to see if he can walk the walk.

In his keynote speech at the July graduation, Williams says, his goal was to communicate to the class of rookie corrections officers that he believed their job was about much more than “moving doors around” and keeping prisoners under control.

“You're working with people that have been thrown away by many,” Williams told them. “Many don't think they have a second chance. [Many] don't understand that public safety begins with what happens when that person goes through the prison door.”

In a one-on-one conversation, Williams comes off as easygoing and frank. When running through his vision for the future of the department and the challenges of its past, he doesn’t lapse into catchphrases or jargon or bureaucrat-speak (though he’s prone to saying things like “Gosh” and “God love you”).

Williams’s explicit goal is to reduce the prison population, and top of mind is Colorado’s high recidivism rate, which currently hovers around 49.5 percent. In order words, nearly half of offenders who are released return to prison within three years as a result of new crimes or technical violations.

Decades ago, that was a normal statistic in the U.S. But according to a 2018 Pew Research Center report, most of the 23 states that report reliable data have dropped their recidivism rates to an average of 37 percent. Colorado’s statistic, meanwhile, has increased in the past five years, contributing to prisons reaching near-capacity. The state has 14,500 beds, and fewer than 1 percent of those have been vacant for the past year, though recent forecasts show a potential drop in the prison population. 

“[Williams's] top priority is to really reduce recidivism,” says Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, an organization that pushes for reform with an eye to ending mass incarceration. “And I think that a lot of directors have said that, but I think Dean means to lean into that and move the needle.”

Williams points out that the Department of Corrections has more power over the recidivism rate and thus the prison population than people might think. It can’t control the law or the court system, but it can radically re-structure both the environment behind prison doors and the process of transitioning incarcerated people back into society. The traditional thinking has been: Make prisons hellholes and people won’t want to return. Williams staunchly disagrees with that theory.

“There's one belief among certain people I talk to who just think that people in prison should just be punished, and they should not get an ounce of opportunity. ... I think that's wrong and shortsighted...if we don't figure out another path for [those convicted of crimes], I'm just guaranteeing that there's gonna be another victim," he says.

Donner explains that so far, Williams seems to align philosophically with the kind of criminal justice reform her organization wants. She has worked closely with Williams on legislation and parole and reentry reform, particularly on strengthening partnerships between the state and community-based organizations that help people transition out of incarceration through the WAGEEs program, which was created in 2014. “He’s very invested in that. Finally, we have a director who understands the importance of the community in that, and is very respectful of that partnership. He values that. It’s like a new day that way. Just much more engagement, creativity, problem solving, all that kind of stuff. So we really enjoy working with him,” she says.

While he was Alaska’s corrections chief, Williams toured prisons in Norway, and often cites that country’s system as a model for “punishment that works,” as he calls it. He wants to “normalize” prisons, he says — meaning that life behind prison walls should be less traumatic. The 2019-2020 performance-based plan (a layout of objectives that every state department has to create annually) notes proposed measures such as “making prisons look more aesthetically pleasing, using offenders to work with other offenders as mentors or to lead groups, and having offenders cook their own meals.” It also outlines goals to ensure that parolees have stable housing and that more are employed upon their release.

Williams also wants to start a program he calls Take TWO, in which vetted employers will hire offenders while they are still incarcerated and pay them a competitive wage. (This would be different from jobs with Colorado Correctional Industries, a state-owned entity that employs prisoners in various industries including agriculture and furniture-making, but pays them far below prevailing wage.)

“Part of where I'm taking the department is that there should be many different ways to do your time,” Williams notes. The program is still getting off the ground; Williams says he is in discussion with employers who are interested in participating, and the department is trying to get community feedback.

Most of the concrete changes he has made in his first seven months have been small, like ending a ban on personalized mail to prisoners, pushing for a small salary increase for entry-level positions, and consulting directly with inmates to think about the future of the prison system.

Williams also has his eye on what Donner says is an “essential component” of reforming the criminal justice system: the relationship between correctional officers and inmates. “We're trying to reduce the us-versus-them, which lives long and well in the prison system," he says. "‘We're on this side of the door, you're on that side of the door, and one shall not meet the other.' My staff are spending many hours, huge portions of their life, behind the walls with a population that has not a lot of other people to visit with other than other inmates. So the idea of an officer being not just a guard, but a role model, is hugely impactful."

He tried a simple measure toward that goal in one prison in Alaska, in which each officer was assigned three to five inmates to converse with for fifteen minutes once a week. “It didn't matter what they talked about, we gave no direction — let's just see what happens. And it started to change the facility. We started to see a decline of incidents, a decline of violence.”

Eric Olsen, a sergeant at the Denver Reception & Diagnostic Center, the facility that temporarily houses, assesses and assigns new inmates to prisons, started his career at the Department of Corrections in 1996. He says Williams’s perspective on inmate-officer relationships is actually what many correctional officers are already building. “Those of us that are really professional and have been doing it a long time, that are committed, the kind of people that I want to retain and be able to recruit — we are all for any reform like that,” he says. “The staff actually do care about the job that we do; we're not just a bunch of knuckle-dragging thugs.”

Before taking over the Department of Corrections, Williams had a wide-ranging career in Alaska that oscillated between positions in the prison system, courts, state government and even a stint as the executive director of a soup kitchen. One of his earliest jobs, though, was as a youth counselor for Alaska’s juvenile justice system, a position for which he credits much of his reformative outlook.

“That was the approach I took in terms of working with kids, because you're not only their guardian, you're an absent parent for them as well, right? Well I think we're kind of absent mentors, absent brothers and sisters to people who are incarcerated. It's not a bad analogy to look at it," he says.

At the basic-training graduation in Pueblo, Williams spoke of a later period in his career: December 2015, when he was working as a special assistant to the Alaskan governor — a dream job, he said, where he basically just got to travel around meeting important people. That is, until he found himself in St. Michael, Alaska, a village of 400 mostly Yup’ik indigenous people, in the middle of a blizzard, with the unfortunate task of showing a villager a disturbing video that revealed how her son had died at the hands of correctional officers in one of the state's prisons. They had forced him face down on the ground while cutting off his sweatshirt, ignoring his insistence that he had a heart condition and repeated pleas that he could not breathe.

“After the video was played, they're all crying, I'm crying, because you can't watch this man die and not know that something different could have happened, that something better could have happened, and it was a needless death. It was bad,” Williams told the new Colorado corrections employees. “And the officers who were at the hands of it didn't mean for it to happen, either. They weren't bad people. They didn't intend to work that day and have that happen. But it was terribly sad. And at the end of the video, the mother again began to pray, saying dear God, find someone who can stand there. Find someone who will stand in the gap and do the hard job and turn the system around.”

One month later, Williams himself was tapped to do just that. He started shortly after an independent review he had conducted became public, faulting the Alaska Department of Corrections for severe errors in investigations of inmate deaths and “lax or informal consequences for apparent employee misconduct.” It found that the department had neglected to respond to mental health red flag warnings or put inmates on suicide watch in the case of several suicides, and that additional inmate deaths were accompanied by medical neglect and excessive use of force. The Alaska Correctional Officers Association viewed the report as a “purposely deceptive” attack that put the officers identified at risk, and strongly opposed Williams’s appointment.

click to enlarge Dean Williams shakes hands with 143 new corrections employees. - COURTESY OF DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS
Dean Williams shakes hands with 143 new corrections employees.
Courtesy of Department of Corrections
Despite clashes with the correctional officers’ union, which claimed his oversight and push for professionalism “subverted officers’ constitutional rights,” Williams was able to push for progressive changes in Alaska prisons (by Alaska’s standards, that is — the state still has a 66.4 percent recidivism rate), including vocational training and reduced use of solitary confinement. But in a testament to how powerful political rhetoric surrounding punishment can get, when Mike Dunleavy became governor in 2018, he removed Williams after two years on the job, suspended many re-entry programs, and disbanded the internal investigation unit that Williams had formed.

Colorado's Department of Corrections is more poised for long-term reform, Williams says. It has the three ingredients Williams sees as necessary to change the system. “You have to have a leader who gets it. I think I do...and I think you have to have an administration and a governor who want that, and a system that's stable enough to do it.”

That doesn’t mean every piece of the system is rolling along smoothly. Most recently, the department has become involved in the frantic attempt to figure out what will happen to more than 500 residents of six privately run Denver halfway houses, after Denver City Council voted to terminate contracts in opposition to private prison companies GEO Group and CoreCivic, which also operate a majority of the country’s immigrant detention centers.

If Denver can’t reach an agreement to keep the six houses open until 2020, occupants of the halfway homes will have to return to the state prison system, which would be pressed to find bed space, or be paroled out on short notice. It would create backlogs for services and “ripple effects in several areas” of corrections, Williams said at a state legislative committee hearing on August 12. The department currently sends 35 to 40 clients into GEO and CoreCivic-run transitional facilities across the state every month.

One controversial option on the table to open up bed space is reopening Centennial South, a prison designed for solitary confinement that closed in 2012 as the department began efforts to phase out solitary. Earlier this year, Polis signed a bill that would allow a partial emergency reopening of the facility in the case of a tight squeeze in bed space. Williams says that he is not planning to open it soon, but toured the facility in July.

The Department of Corrections also faces significant personnel challenges. The turnover rate among corrections officers for the last fiscal year was 26 percent, with a vacancy rate of 12 percent. Colorado WINS, the union that represents corrections officers as well as other state employees, is hard at work pushing for a bill for the 2020 legislative session that would enable collective bargaining, which would give employees a seat at the table to negotiate their wages and working conditions. “We have a better relationship with Dean Williams than we have with other directors,” says Olsen, a member of the union.

“The pay is low. We haven't been keeping up with the private sector,” Olsen says, and officers often quit out of exhaustion or leave for other law enforcement positions, or even jobs in county jails. Because of the employee shortage, they’re often forced to work overtime — Olsen says he expects to have at least two sixteen-hour shifts each month. “With those working conditions…you don't really have control of your life,” he says. And it overworks guards and adds to the danger of the environment.

Hilary Glasgow, executive director of Colorado WINS, says that the union is encouraged that Williams is familiar with unions, having been a member of one himself when he was an officer in Alaska. She says that Colorado WINS has had more consistent interaction with Williams than it did with Raemisch.

"We work not just for workers of the State of Colorado but for the state that we serve, and that includes our incarcerated population," Glasgow says. "We want to lower recidivism, we want to make prison more humane and make it a place where people can actually turn their lives around. We can't do that if we can't keep the state staffed on an adequate level and ensure that all the people who work in the prisons and that people who live in the prisons are safe."

More skirmishes and unforeseen circumstances inevitably lie ahead. But like Donner, Denise Maes, public policy director at the ACLU of Colorado, says she’s hopeful that Williams will bring change to one of the biggest cogs in the state’s criminal justice system: “He certainly speaks of very progressive concepts and ideas, and we’ll keep an eye out.” The greatest problem she foresees is the culture within the department of maintaining the status quo. “It’s a complicated, big system,” Maes says.

Williams sees that, too. “Maybe the other thing that holds people back is they just don't know there's a different way, and we become myopic, you know...but when you get your head up and you say, ‘Hey, has anybody done this differently?,’ you realize they have.

“It's okay for us to question who we are," he continues. "It's okay for us to question the way we've done things. We're strong enough to do that now."
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Sara Fleming is a freelance writer and formal editorial fellow at Westword. She covers a wide variety of stories about local politics and communities. A born-and-raised Coloradan, when she's not exploring Denver, she's on a mission to visit every mountain town in the state.
Contact: Sara Fleming