Over and Over Again

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Miller insists her "re-entry specialists" do their best to hook up parolees with an array of assistance, from bus tokens to drug programs to even springing for initial therapy sessions. Housing remains one of the biggest problems.

"With mandatory parole, you tend to have a group that comes out without resources," Miller says. "Especially the long-term offenders. We have an increase in those who are coming out to homeless shelters. We're aware of that. We're trying to develop more transitional services. But they may abscond just because they're looking for a place to live."

According to Tim Hand, assistant director of operations for the parole division, 85 percent of the parolees assigned to the Sherman Street office, a few blocks south of Colfax, are coming out homeless. Although that office isn't as large as some others in the metro area, it handles the bulk of the Denver cases.

"A lot of these guys have a tendency to burn bridges along the way, even with their own families," says Hand. "It's quite a challenge for us. Our officers do everything they can to keep them on track."

Miller believes the parole division has a "pretty good system" for helping to stabilize its errant clients. The tough part of the job, she says, is overcoming community opposition to having parolees in their midst at all; battles over the siting of halfway houses and neighborhood parole offices have become increasingly acrimonious. Getting employers, landlords and others to support the return of thousands of felons, many of whom will fail, isn't easy, either.

"Unless they have a death sentence or life without parole, everybody's going to come back some day," Miller notes. "The community has to reach out to them, mentor them -- not just tolerate them, but engage them, make them a part of the community. That's critical. It's very unrealistic for the public to believe that someone who has a drug or alcohol problem can go into prison, get cured, come out and never use drugs or alcohol again. These are people who are going to need support services for a lifetime."

Jake Johnson doesn't want to go downtown again. The thought of being stuck in a shelter -- with a pager and no money and the bills piling up, competing for pissant jobs and services against men much younger than him...men who don't have his criminal record...tired, angry men lining up at five o'clock to get a shot at a mat on the floorŠ It's all more horrible than anything he's experienced in prison.

"I'm scared to death to go down there again," he says.

So Johnson has a plan. He has reconnected with one of his sisters and wants to parole to her place in Arvada next time. He's been learning a trade in prison, graphic arts, and has visions of meaningful employment ahead. First, of course, there's the matter of parole, which he expects to be as difficult as possible.

"They'll probably throw me an ankle bracelet and keep an eye on me all the time," he says. "With my track record? You bet."

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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