Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?

Our mission is to reverse the trend of mass incarceration in Colorado. We are a coalition of nearly 7,000 individual members and over 100 faith and community organizations who have united to stop perpetual prison expansion in Colorado through policy and sentence reform.

Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.

If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

WESTWORD - Can A Troubled Colorado Prison Change The Way Inmates Think?

The newest article from Alan on our prison system appears in this weeks Westword. This time he takes on Cheyenne Mountain.

By Alan Prendergast

published: November 06, 2008

Can a privately run "re-entry center" change the way prisoners think?

Jay Lewis assumes the position. He slouches, arms folded across his chest, knee bent and foot braced on the wall behind him. He looks like your typical green-tunic-clad felon, lazily taking in the passing show at the Cheyenne Mountain Re-Entry Center, a 750-bed private prison in Colorado Springs.

"He's jailin'," explains fellow inmate Charles Cook. "That's something we try to deter. If I saw Mr. Lewis doing that for real, I'd pull him up on that and tell him that he's going back to his old behaviors."

Lewis straightens up immediately. "Thank you," he says. "I'll get right on top of that."

The demonstration is neatly scripted, like a lot of interactions among inmates at CMRC. But that seems to be part of the appeal of the place to prisoners like Cook and Lewis; it's a new script for convicts who've found that the old ways haven't gotten them anywhere they want to be. At CMRC, the trappings and the terminology defy expectation. Inmates are known as "residents" and call each other "mister"; the warden is the "director." Staffers dress like corporate executives and motivational coaches rather than prison guards. The living units feature spartan eight- and twelve-man rooms with bunk beds rather than barred cells. Huge signs line the corridors, exhorting residents in an almost Orwellian pitch:







Although classified as a medium-security prison, the facility is a radical departure from the typical lockup operated by the Colorado Department of Corrections. Most of CMRC's residents are nearing the end of their sentences and are likely to be paroled soon; about 20 percent are parole violators getting a little attitude adjustment before hitting the streets again. Under a DOC contract that pays the private operators $52 per head per day, the facility tries to prepare inmates for release by offering basic education, job-hunting and computer skills, drug treatment programs and classes in what could loosely be described as "lifestyle change" — efforts to challenge well-established prison culture by, for example, having inmates confront each other over unacceptable behavior.

There are eighteen possible levels of "intervention" that residents and staff can try, Cook explains, before a misbehaving resident might get thrown into the hole or out of the program. His mild rebuke of Lewis is known as a verbal pull-up, and the only right response to a pull-up is thank you, I'll get right on that. If a resident provides a less compliant answer, along the lines of get your face out of my business before I shank your sorry ass, stronger measures are taken. The offender might have to face his peers in a staff-run meeting, standing in a spot in the middle of the room marked by the outline of two large red feet.

"A lot of guys come here with a sense of closed-mindedness," Cook says. "We're just trying to open them up. There's no chain of command among residents, but there is a line of communication. We have static groups, we have hot seats, we have confrontation groups. Staff are present and overseeing things, but a great deal of it is actually facilitated by the residents."

Like many in his unit, Cook is a firm believer in the CMRC approach. He points proudly to his name listed as unit coordinator at the top of a "structure board," delineating the various lines of communication within his pod. He has been at the prison since February and expects it might be another year before he makes parole. "This is how I want to be when I'm released," he says. "I don't want to go back to DOC and get into a situation where I have to abide by that convict mentality."

Some residents can be almost evangelistic about the program, which they hope will better their chances of being granted an early parole. Serving a ten-year stretch for assault and burglary of a Taco Bell, Eric Erickson has been turned down by the state parole board three times already. He calls his arrival at CMRC three months ago "a huge blessing."

"It's not like DOC, where you can sleep and do nothing all day," he says. "At 6 a.m., it's feet on the floor for everyone. I've seen some good, positive things since I've been here. The staff are respectful and helpful, and I've seen this program help other inmates get out."

But not every journey through CMRC has been so positive. Regular visits by DOC monitors have turned up a slew of management and operational blunders at the prison since it opened three years ago. Documents obtained by Westword show a history of staff shortages and high turnover, inadequate training and security lapses, assaults and gang activity, and several instances of female staffers being fired for fraternization or even sexual relationships with residents. And some inmates who have completed the program claim the place has more problems with violence, contraband and bogus classes than the inspection reports suggest.

"It's a joke," says Douglas Bullard, a 45-year-old parolee who left CMRC in September. "The only time they had people doing what they were supposed to do was when the director was coming through with his cronies. Other than that, it's a free-for-all. You got kids running amok. You got people climbing around in the ceilings, breaking into offices and stealing stuff. You got booze, you got drugs, you got guys smoking in the bathroom. You're supposed to be confronted by other inmates, but the staff are the only ones who are doing it."

"There is very little control," adds Cecil Mercer, who left CMRC last summer after eleven months. "Every day someone gets beat down, and most of the time it's five or six on one. The last five or six months there, I did not feel safe."

Kevin Estep, CMRC's third director since it opened in 2005, insists that the situation has improved markedly since he arrived last spring and that inmates' stories about chronic assaults are greatly exaggerated. "I've heard the same things you've heard," he says. "But we haven't had a serious assault since I've been here. We do have fights, and we take those very seriously, but I've seen prisons that are much worse than what we have."

Officials at Community Education Centers, the New Jersey-based company that runs CMRC and other re-entry and halfway house programs in 22 states, acknowledge some "glitches" in the early phases of the Colorado Springs operation but point to the company's track record elsewhere. Research studies tracking ex-cons who've been through CEC facilities indicate that they are less likely to commit additional crimes than other parolees. "We've had some growing pains," says CEC senior vice president William Palatucci. "It hasn't been a perfect start-up, by any means. But we have a great deal of confidence in our model and the direction that we're heading."



Unknown said...

As a former 'fortunate' 'resident' of this 're-entry' center, I can personally attest that the reality of CMRC more colsely aligns with 'Mr.' Bullard's and 'Mr.' Mercer's accounts than 'Mr.' Estep's. It's a sad joke basically sums it right up.

Anonymous said...

We all know a prison run for profit is a violation of our constitution, Its slavery pure and simple. All prisons for profit need to lock up the people who dreamed them up and are profiting from inmates. djw

Anonymous said...

Former Operations Counselor F

From the first day I began working at Cheyenne Mountain Re-Entry, I had all confidence in what they were endeavouring to accomplish. I felt it in my heart and I wanted to be positive and do whatever I could to make this work. I understood my purpose for being hired.

During that time I gained the utmost respect from the residents. They knew if I was on the POD(3BC) they were expected to follow the rules, regulations and policies just as I was expected too. I simply did what the instructors taught me in class, added my personality and was able to accomplish the mission most of the time. Sometimes it was a kind word, laugh or smile, if it was funny but, sometimes my face would make you want to go to your dorm room. The LOOK, a stern face and words, if necessary.

I am female and the residents tried all of the same old tricks that most men try out on the streets. Sometimes, I was able to say, "WHATEVER", then there were times when I absolutely called the individual to the pod office and straight up told HIM how I felt about it. Listen, that was NOT a good thing for those guys. The residents I had to address in that manner, would apologize quickly and I never had another situation even remotely close to disrespect from that resident again, of course those write-ups work.

However, it was known that I was not the one. You see, temptation is only a temptation when the tempter (whatever your desire/lust) is within you. No one can cause you to do what is not inside of you already. Therfore, we had quite a few ladies to fall for the hype.

Respect that is surrendered will have no choice but to return to the sender. I gave sincere respect and I received the same respect back however, at a greater level. Of course, in every setting we will always encounter the knuckle heads that did not understand the process. For some reason, they would act as if they did not get the memo. Those individuals had to be dealt another hand at their level.

So, my theory was to help all who wanted to improve their way of thinking. And, whenever the knuckle heads came around to it, I would be there to speak the truth to them also. I am a Pastor but I did not preach to them, I showed them by example what it could be if they would only adhere to what is being expressed and taught.

No, I did not agree with the way CMRC did everything but, I had to enforce it anyway. It only takes one situation that even a child will recognize, and will manipulate.

Also, as I worked the other shifts, I was able to hear more about what was being discussed or taught. It was important to me since I was also expected to reeinerate, emphasize or enforce. While listening to the residents in intervention or open discussion, I could see the seriousness of some and the closed-mindedness of others.

You see, its not CMRC that will make the difference in the residents lives, its left up to the residents to acknowledge the problems within. CMRC is the catalyst.

CMRC has provided the place, the atmosphere, the opportunity, the information, the people (operations counselors, case managers and unit managers)who has the ability to help.

So, lets not give up on the CMRC project yet, great things always take time to be established. CMRC is still trying to find its footing. For example; it doesn't matter that you have other children and yourself walking around a small child that does not know how to walk. He/she still have to learn how to do it for themselves. Quite frankly, CMRC and the residents are all in the same boat. Learning, adjusting and readjusting.

Its not a JOKE for real. Its very detrimental to a lot of people.

While I have no friends or relatives in CMRC or any other prison, camp or detention center, I still believe in most.

Lastly, if CMRC would hire a Director who care about and support ALL of his staff, staff members who can understand and work toward the purpose; this idea or vision would be the place to be for all possible parolees and mandatory release inmates or residents if, they are serious about change.

For, it is true, you are what you think, first!

To my friends and fellow ex-coworkers; remember your PURPOSE, speak the TRUTH, stand your ground TOGETHER as ONE and carry or push the vision. My prayer for you all at this time is that you will get this message and learn to work together. Understanding, there is strength in unity of mind and spirit.

CMRC need to be successful, for the people inside and out. I really miss you guys.


You already know!

Anonymous said...