Dorothy Rupert on the prison industry and being a game changer

There was a time in the mid-1990s when Dorothy Rupert, then a state senator from Boulder, made a point out of touring every prison in Colorado. No easy feat, since at the time the state had the fastest-growing corrections system in the country. "I was just appalled at the rapid growth," Rupert recalls. "It took a hundred years to lock up a thousand people in Colorado. By the mid-1980s, we'd tripled that. People said that it was just keeping up with the overall population, but that wasn't true."

By the end of the 1990s, thanks largely to harsher sentencing schemes and the war on drugs, Colorado's prison population had doubled again and was approaching 20,000 inmates. And Rupert had become one of the staunchest critics of the lock-'em-up mentality down at the statehouse. Rupert left the legislature in 2000, but this week, she and former state representative Penfield Tate will receive the inaugural Rupert-Tate Game Changer Award at a fundraiser benefit for the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition -- an organization launched in response to the two lawmakers' pioneering efforts to put the brakes on the burgeoning prison-industrial complex in their back yard.

In 1999, Tate and Rupert sponsored an audacious bill calling for a three-year moratorium on prison expansion and the creation of a task force to explore alternatives to incarceration for low-level offenders. "It was something that needed to be talked about," says Rupert, a Democrat who taught in public schools for 35 years. "The war on drugs was just a heartbreaking experience for me, for some of my students, for our country."

The bill didn't pass. "The prison industry has the same kind of relationship with state legislators that the Pentagon has with Congress," Rupert says. "There are all these heavy lobbyists, and the fear factor is immense. A lot of people said they would love to support me, but they just couldn't."

Yet the battle prompted some of the bill's supporters to build a statewide, grassroots reform organization -- the CCJRC, which has gone on to successfully push for major revisions in drug sentencing laws, parole conditions, and related issues.

The state's escalating prison population has leveled off in recent years and even diminished slightly, leaving corrections officials puzzling over what to do with a spare supermax and closing other costly facilities.

"The only good thing about being in a recession is that it has made us pull back on locking people up in crazy ways," Rupert notes.

Rupert is 86 now. She no longer tours public and private lock-ups with any regularity, but she teaches a class in democracy at the University of Colorado at Boulder. And she's full of praise for CCJRC and its executive director, Christie Donner: "I'm just so grateful for their voices."

Donner's group feels the same way about Rupert and Tate, who will be the first recipients of their eponymous award at the organization's annual fundraiser on Thursday, September 20, from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. at Mile High Station, 2027 West Colfax Avenue. The event features dinner, guest speakers -- including two former inmates now active in assisting others in re-entry programs -- and a silent auction of trips, concert tickets, cooking classes and other goodies, including a Scarabeo scooter.

For more information or to purchase tickets, check out the CCJRC website or call 303-825-0122.

More from our Prison Life archive: "Troy Anderson lawsuit: Supermax must provide outdoor rec, judge rules."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast