Perhaps most importantly, these programs have helped Colorado achieve one of the lowest recidivism rates — or the rate at which individuals return to prison — in the country.
Whether or not you agree with the principle of shutting down private prisons (and we do), it’s important to note that for a time, there was a possible unintended consequence of this decision that could have sent hundreds of formerly incarcerated individuals back to prison — at a substantial cost to Colorado taxpayers — and could seriously damage Colorado’s efforts to serve in the vanguard for criminal justice reform.
Let’s look at the scope of the incarceration crisis in America. Currently, more than 2 million people are being held in the criminal justice system, making it the largest prison population in the free world. And here in Colorado, the prison population is expected to increase 20% by 2025.
Although punishment serves many purposes, one of its primary goals is to reduce the likelihood that a person will repeat a future criminal act. And in America, we are not doing a great job of that.
More than almost any other state, Colorado’s focus on rehabilitation over punishment has helped it achieve a recidivism rate of 54%, or more than an eye-popping twenty percentage points lower than the national average. This can be attributed to a number of factors, such as recent legislation to “ban the box,” an arcane, Scarlet Letter-type approach that prevented formerly incarcerated individuals from finding housing and employment. More broadly, the Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC) has invested in innovative programs that help inmates find work, save money and even launch their own businesses before they’re released.
According to Dean Williams, the DOC’s executive director, these in-prison programs can both slow the revolving door between prison and society and help reduce the state’s swelling prison population. Less institutionalization and more preparedness for life after incarceration is allowing people to to serve their time in halfway houses while making a living wage, and the data shows that this approach is working.
It’s clear that the Denver City Council wrestled with the decision to end the contracts for these companies. But it’s equally clear that little to no thought was given to an effective Plan B that will help individuals who rely on these facilities to reintegrate back into our communities. While the end result doesn’t seem to indicate that hundreds of former prisoners will be immediately re-incarcerated, let us suggest a path forward that Denver — and other cities around the country looking at similar decisions as the crisis on the border continues — should consider.
Many programs and nonprofit organizations currently operate in Colorado with an express goal of reducing recidivism rates while helping formerly incarcerated individuals rediscover their dignity through business training, character development, coaching and mentorship. One such program, Defy Colorado, is currently operational in three Colorado prisons and has prepared hundreds of individuals for life on the outside. Full disclosure: one of us was introduced to Defy as an inmate in a Colorado penitentiary, and the other discovered Defy as a private citizen outraged by the inequities in our system.
We know from personal experience how difficult it is to obtain gainful employment and housing as an ex-convict, and we also know firsthand how difficult it can be to integrate back into society after such a dark, lonely and occasionally scary experience. Through in-prison programs like Defy, individuals can earn certificates and wages, and actually improve their post-incarceration outlook.
There are a lot of solvable problems in this country, and recidivism is one of them. We call upon Council to support nonprofit programs that can continue Colorado’s commitment to reducing recidivism.
Buck Adams is a former inmate at the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility and the founder of Prison Art. Jason Mendelson is co-founder at Foundry Group.