Hassan Latif: Ex-con advises others how to stay out of prison

Contrary to scenes in numerous books and movies, getting locked up doesn't always lead to painful bouts of reflection and self-examination. Criminals are a stubborn bunch, and it's easy behind bars to embrace a convict code and a victim mentality that merely reinforces addictive, self-destructive and antisocial behavior -- which is why so many convicted felons end up back in prison within a few years of release.

It's a mind game that Hassan A. Latif knows too well.

"I spent a lot of time and energy refusing to deal with what put me there," says Latif, who went into the Colorado Department of Corrections at the age of 33 and emerged shortly after turning fifty. "For fifteen years, I wasn't about hearing any of it. I wasn't looking in the mirror at my part in this."

Latif came to Colorado from New York in the 1980s with an attitude and an addiction to cocaine -- his "drug of no choice," as he puts it. In 1988, he was convicted of armed robbery in Arapahoe County. He emerged from prison early in 2006 determined to pursue a different path. He now works as an addiction counselor, serves as executive director of the newly launched Second Chance Center -- and has just published Never Going Back: 7 Steps to Staying Out of Prison, a survival guide for parolees coming out of the corrections system and families trying to keep them out.

The turning point in his own incarceration, Latif says, came when he decided to seek out a "therapeutic community" at DOC for prisoners with a history of substance abuse, followed by a residential program operated by Peer I and University of Colorado Denver upon release. The in-prison program had few slots available and was disparaged by other prisoners, but Latif refused to be discouraged.

"Most guys never had the opportunity to access it," he recalls. "They called it a 'rat program' because it's peer-driven, one participant addressing another about their behaviors. But the people saying that were the ones who failed the program."

Latif's book distills many of the hard lessons acquired from his own experience of moving from semi-institutionalized badass to tenuous freedom. His seven steps begin with "Own Your Own Crap" -- dispensing with the usual broken-record whining and excuses and accepting responsibility for past crimes -- and move on to confronting addiction and coping with the basics of job-hunting and "ego management" on the outside. The message isn't dissimilar to what many prisoners may be hearing from parole officers and case managers, but it's delivered in a been-there-done-that tone of bittersweet, firsthand understanding and empathy.

At the same time, the narrative shares few specifics of Latif's own troubled history -- largely because he didn't want to glorify his crimes or prison life, he says.

"I was getting a lot of pushback from publishers to include war stories, to include more HBO's Oz kind of stuff," he explains. "But I didn't want it to be my story. I didn't want it to seem like you had to go through my particular experiences to be successful."

What makes a hardened criminal abruptly decide to change his or her life? Latif says that varies with each individual. "Some people go in, and after six months in prison they're ready for something new," he says. "For others, it can take years and years. My hope was that loved ones would be purchasing this for themselves as well as for the people who are coming out."

More information about Latif's book -- and some early, enthusiastic responses -- can be found at the Never Going Back Facebook page. Latif will be signing copies of Never Going Back at the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library, 2401 Welton Street, on Monday, June 18, at 4:30 pm.

Other articles about parole and recidivism issues are collected in Westword's Crime and Punishment archive.

More from our Prison Life archive: "Krystal Voss's advice for female prisoners: Obsessively hoard water."

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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