Over and Over Again

Page 6 of 8

But heaping more charges on offenders for what are essentially parole violations is wrongheaded, Donner insists: "Let's recognize that re-entry is extremely, extremely difficult. We need to provide greater support for the people coming out. When you revoke someone for a minor violation, all you've done is obliterate what they've been able to put together in their life. The more appropriate response for someone who's on the edge -- maybe they're starting to use drugs, maybe they're hanging out with people they shouldn't be around -- is to use intermediate sanctions in the community."

When the DOC presented its king-sized budget request to the legislature three months ago, Representative Bernie Buescher, a Democrat who once ran for lieutenant governor, demanded to know what the agency was doing to reduce recidivism. DOC director Joe Ortiz replied that he had no control over how many prisoners the courts send him or how long they're expected to stay.

The answer failed to impress Buescher. He intimated that the agency should stop automatically expanding to accommodate its caseload and start looking at its performance. He wanted the DOC to come up with a plan to improve the success rate of its clientele, rather than simply feed on its failures.

He's still waiting for that plan. "The silence has been deafening," Buescher says. "Some of the departments don't believe they can actually control their budgets. This is a classic example."

Buescher's no expert on prisons, he adds, but he believes that the DOC needs to set goals for reducing recidivism and then make management changes to achieve them. "They have a recidivism rate that's dropped slightly over the last four years, from 52 to 49 percent," he notes. "But how does that compare with other states? We need to look at that, yet they're complaining about their caseload. If it wasn't so sad, it would be comic."

When prisoners do get paroled from the Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center, the chances are pretty good that, a few weeks or months later, they'll wind up 200 yards down Smith Road from where they started -- at the Denver County Jail, awaiting a parole revocation hearing and the trip back to the DRDC.

Administrative hearing officer Tom Waters conducts revocations at the jail with a kind of tightly controlled urgency that makes parole hearings seem almost leisurely by comparison. There are plenty of obligatory advisements and procedural niceties to follow, and an ever-shifting cast of inmates, parole officers and manila files, but Waters, an attorney who's been doing revocations for the parole board for three years, manages to keep it all moving along. He averages 180 hearings a month.

The accused parole violators are men and women, black, white and brown. Mostly, they are resigned, their voices faint in the cavernous visiting room.

"I understand why I should be violated -- revoked," says one woman, who's been charged with failing to report to her parole officer and has a new conviction for possession of drug paraphernalia. "I'm just ready to get back on the right track."

"I been doing good," says another, arrested on a charge of solicitation. "I just went on Colfax, and I shouldn't have. I ended up following my mind and not doing the right thing."

"I ate a burger, and I got really sick," says a ponytailed male who's picked up municipal court convictions for disturbing the peace, trespassing and unlawful public indecency, all over one bad night on downtown's mean streets. "I was crapping, was what I was doing. I was in the bathroom of a hotel for three hours. They kicked me out of there, so I had to go somewhere else.... Since I got off ISP, it's been a nightmare. I got kicked out of New Genesis for someone else's stupidity."

If the parolee has already been found guilty of a new crime, that simplifies Waters's job. A new crime is a self-evident parole violation that almost always warrants revocation. In other instances, new charges are still pending; Waters postpones action on those cases until later, lining up three inmates at a time to grant continuances. Over the course of a morning, he continues eight cases, sends two inmates back to prison (including Mr. Bad Burger) and allows another to proceed on parole.

"It's never a great joy to revoke someone's parole," Waters says later, when he has a few moments to reflect on his work. "It's a tough business. These are individuals who we're trying to get back into the world. But it's not just a litany of failure that is being brought before me. You'd be surprised at the number of times the parole officer says good things about how hard this individual has been trying. Sometimes the individual is going to be continued on parole, with new conditions."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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