The 29 days since Jason Horn left jail have been a blur of bus rides, AA meetings and rejections. Today, with a cold snap tugging the temperature into the single digits, he's taking the No. 3 bus to continue his job search in Old Colorado City. Somehow, he manages to sound upbeat.
"You can't give up," he says. "You can't let your past history slow you down, start drinking and drugging again."
Experience tells him that kind of history is tough to shake. But this time is going to be different. It has to be.
Though the sun is doing little to stave off a bone-numbing chill, it's still early afternoon when Horn reaches his stop on West Colorado Avenue. As he walks on a snow-packed stretch of sidewalk toward a nearby Starbucks, the 33-year-old's limp becomes visible. He broke his foot playing handball while in jail, and now doctors say he'll need surgery to fix a bone that's healed into a painful knob protruding under his shoelaces.
"I don't have the money," Horn says simply.
The coffee shop provides a welcome break from the cold, but Horn immediately walks to the counter to ask about openings. If not quite confident, he projects a calm fatalism about his job search, as if certain that he'll get whatever is his due.
That turns out to be very little at Starbucks. The woman behind the counter says he'll have to apply online — a kiss of death, since it'll give him no chance to explain his criminal history.
Horn smiles as he leaves, and continues smiling as he walks between other businesses the rest of the afternoon. He fills out applications at a temp agency and a couple restaurants, while hearing variations on the Starbucks theme — come back later or apply online — if not outright refusal, at a dozen other places.
He never talks about his felony, because no one asks. So today, Horn clings to the hope of a call-back from a steakhouse where he interviewed the day before. And he basically looks like just one more desperate person searching for work in a dismal job market.
Plagued by the past
The reality for Horn and others with felony records is much darker. Steve Handen, a Colorado Springs homeless advocate, says the process of filling out applications often ends the hiring process long before the time comes to make a decision.
"It's name, address, telephone number, and, 'Have you ever been convicted of a felony?'" he says. "The felonious ones fall to the bottom of the barrel pretty quick."
Handen says he's seen people submit 100 or more applications before throwing in the towel. Then they take joblessness for granted and go back to drinking or whatever else got them into trouble in the first place.
Christie Donner, executive director of the Denver-based Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, lays out the conundrum in explicit terms: "If they can't survive legally, they will figure out a way to survive."
Gov. Bill Ritter set goals soon after he took office three years ago to reduce recidivism, the rate at which people like Horn go back to prison, while also curbing growth in the state's prison population. On the latter front he's made some progress: The state has only added 346 inmates to its tally since the end of 2006, bringing the total to 22,696. (Ritter announced with some fanfare a plan to save the state nearly $19 million in the 2009-10 budget year by speeding the release of some inmates, but his Accelerated Transition Program was scaled back sharply amid criticism that dangerous people would be put back on the streets.)
It's too early to examine recidivism data since the governor took office, but the state's tightening budget has already squeezed out some of the programs that were meant to help former inmates stick to the straight and narrow. Starting last year, the state budgeted $1.8 million for "wraparound" services to help parolees get jobs, housing and other necessities, along with $3 million to get inmates educational and vocational training in prison. Yet neither program ever was funded, and both are slated for permanent elimination from the Department of Corrections budget this year.
Donner says three of the 200-plus inmates released early under Ritter's Accelerated Transition Program have already come to her organization looking for help, indicating possible gaps in services for that program as well.
Donner, who serves on the state's Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice and helps lead one of its sub-groups analyzing post-prison supervision, says funding woes are only part of a bigger problem: The state's parole system still leans toward penalizing offenders who slip up, instead of motivating them to succeed.
"We are probably years behind where other states are," she says.
Plans to start training parole and probation officers in motivational interviewing techniques are on track for later this year. But their clients will face the harshest economy in decades.
Back in February 2007, the Indy told the story of Ernie Medina, who, after serving three prison terms on drug-related charges, started his own construction company with the goal of employing other former inmates. Today, the company is gone, and Medina's struggling to find hourly work as a carpenter. Paroled five years ago, Medina sounds a note of despair talking about what it would be like to get out now: "They are almost doomed to fail because of a lack of work."
He talks longingly about the idea that people should get a chance to succeed when they leave prison, then dismisses it.
"That's just fucked," he says, apologizing for the profanity but adding that no other word fits. "It's just too hard to find a job."
In 2006, Donner's group surveyed parolees released in Denver and found a quarter had become homeless as soon as they walked out of the prison gates.
Unemployment, of course, is a related condition. It can lead to homelessness when money runs out or support networks get strained. Being homeless can also make it tough to look presentable for job interviews, or to fill out applications that require a permanent address. And yet Donner says the issue of joblessness facing those with records has basically been left unexamined.
"I don't think people appreciate how big a problem this is," she says. "Employers and landlords are developing blanket policies that shut the door on people who have a criminal record."
That's true even when someone like Horn insists, "I'm not who I was anymore." Sober now for almost five months, he comes across as gentle and polite. Though he moved to Colorado Springs in grade school, the twang of a Texas accent still plays across his voice. It's always "Yes, sir" and "No, sir."
Horn says alcohol or drugs consistently played into the acts of violence that lace his criminal record, which dates back to 1992, while he was at Doherty High School. Relatively minor crimes escalated in the late '90s, and in 2004 he was charged with felony assault after a fight with his girlfriend. He ended up pleading to a reduced charge of felony menacing.
That, and an escape charge he earned for walking away from a work-release program, landed him in prison for 11 months starting in May 2007.
He's determined not to go back.
"Something happened to me when I got out of prison," he says. "I'm getting too old for this crap."
But the psychic costs sometimes pale to the monetary costs that meet parolees on the outside. For starters, there can be fees just to be on parole; for Horn, it's $10 a month. Many parole officers also want multiple urine tests each month; that's $12 to $15 a pop. Then there are mandatory classes on things like meth awareness and staying sober, which run from $35 to $50 a session.
"It's a couple hundred bucks [a month], easy, just to comply," Donner says.
The state has a quaint practice dating to 1972 of giving inmates a hundred bucks of start-up money the first time they're released by the Department of Corrections. (That would be almost $500 in today's money, but a 2008 recommendation from the state Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice to increase this "gate money" from $100 hasn't gone anywhere.)
Horn didn't even get the $100 when he got out of prison in April 2008. It's only for people released to civilian life; Horn instead was sent for five months into a work-release program.
After work-release, Horn spent several months back on parole before he got in trouble by drinking heavily again. Somehow, he avoided another stretch in prison, but he was sent in August to spend three months in El Paso County's jail participating in a new program designed to reduce recidivism.
In El Paso County, 66.6 percent of the 24,710 people booked at the jail in 2004 had been locked up there within the previous three years. That rate climbed to 70.6 percent in 2006 and 71.3 percent in 2007 as bookings held fairly steady.
In August 2007, Sheriff Terry Maketa launched the Reintegration and Recovery Program to control the increase and reduce overcrowding in the 1,600-bed jail. It now counts about 120 inmates at any one time, men and women who get substance-abuse counseling, take classes and do chores. Those with felony convictions get advice on finding a job; for instance, they're told that instead of just checking an application's felony box, it's better to explain what happened and how they've changed.
The results are surprising. Maketa says the recidivism rate among those who went through the program has so far been around 18 percent. As a whole, the rate of repeat offenders being booked into the jail has dropped to close to 60 percent, a reduction of more than 10 percent that Maketa ties directly to the reintegration program.
"When they get out of here," Maketa says with a touch of grandeur, "they are ready to take on the world."
A 'noble effort'
In October, talking in one of the jail's two wards devoted to the reintegration program, Horn indeed seemed ready. Sitting at one of the ward's steel tables, he radiated optimism as he discussed plans to get out, find a job, and resume his life with his fiancée and their 5-month-old son, Jaden.
"You've got a lot of people who stereotype criminals," Horn said. "Some of us actually want to get better."
Typical wards at the jail have a menacing feel, with groups of tattooed men milling around in front of televisions, glaring at visitors. Though Maketa removed weight sets out of concern that some inmates were getting dangerously buff, inmates still cycle through a gym area doing pull-ups and push-ups. A solitary guard maintains order through a bizarre alchemy of trust, faith and coercion.
The reintegration wards, by contrast, have a mellow vibe, with inmates going about their business purposefully.
Maketa now runs the program on about $280,000, much of it from a federal grant, but he's looking to expand eventually to 65 percent or more of the jail. Since El Paso County voters have repeatedly rejected tax measures to expand the jail, most recently in 2008, he casts the program as a way of making the most of the space he has.
He laughs at the notion that giving inmates a leg up is a liberal idea.
"We are light years ahead of anybody, in what many consider the most conservative county in the state," he says.
Handen, the homeless advocate, describes the program as a "noble effort," but he's not convinced Maketa has solved the recidivism problem. He believes there needs to be a broader community push to get that done.
"I think they are swimming upstream," Handen says.
Horn still talks appreciatively about the program and the chance it gave him to get classes out of the way. But he's also aware that from here, rebuilding is up to him.
Horn picked up his first criminal charges for drugs and underage drinking as a teenager. In 1998, he pleaded guilty to domestic violence, and two years later he was charged with theft: He says he became the unwitting getaway driver after friends at Garden of the Gods turned out to be less interested in natural beauty than in loot from other cars.
His 1996 marriage didn't endure the fights, stints in jail and work-release at Colorado Springs' ComCor corrections program. Upon divorcing in 2000, he lost custody of his 4-year-old son. A year later, he got charged with felony menacing for a drunken attack on a man whom he says threatened him, his ex-wife and their son. He later pleaded to a misdemeanor.
After another stint at ComCor, his life stabilized for a while. Things got serious with a new girlfriend, and the two moved in together. On May 31, 2004, they started fighting at their apartment after an afternoon at Territory Days. Police were later called to the girlfriend's mother's house, and the girlfriend told police Horn had attacked her and cut her cheek with a pair of scissors.
Horn was charged with felony assault, menacing and harassment. He ended up pleading guilty to the menacing charge, and was sentenced to nearly a year of intensive supervised probation.
He started drinking again, got sent back to ComCor and then skipped out on supervision, which earned him an escape charge and 11 months in prison. If he can stay out of trouble, Horn will compete his time on parole in November 2012.
Though Horn has been in and out of trouble for the past 12 years, much of the time he's served has been in ComCor, meaning he's been able to work: at a car wash, in construction, as a cook.
"I can flip eggs like nobody's business," he says with mock pride.
Becky Boerjan, director of the jail's reintegration and recovery program, says Horn appears to be someone "hungry" for advice, treatment and a chance to get his life together.
"I really think he's at that turning point," she says.
But as sincere as Horn seems, Boerjan acknowledges it will be "an uphill battle." He got out of El Paso County's jail Nov. 12 with $40 in his pocket; $10 of it went to a friend who picked him up and dropped him at his fiancée's house.
Even buttressed by the program he completed in jail, Horn's hopes and expectations quickly took a beating. His fiancée called off their engagement and said he needed to show he could stay sober and employed before she'd reconsider. With money borrowed from his grandfather in Texas, Horn paid $450 for an initial month in an addiction recovery home, and set off to find work.
By Dec. 10, that steakhouse interview has him feeling close. Walking toward the bus stop to get back downtown, Horn finally gives in to his curiosity and calls, but discovers that the supervisor he met is off for the day.
The saga continues in the days that follow. Horn is called back in, only to discover there are no openings for a cook. He then interviews for a busboy job, only to be told again there are no immediate openings, at least for him.
At this point, he takes on an anguished tone: "In my frame of mind," he says, "I was thinking they might really want me."
To keep people like Jason Horn out of trouble once they leave prison, parole officers impose a variety of restrictions: Parolees need to be at their jobs when you say they'll be there, and they need permission to move or get a roommate. They need to check in at prescribed times, attend meetings and pass urine tests.
One thing that bothers reform advocates like Donner is that about a third of all parolees end up going back to prison for "technical violations," such as failing pee tests or missing appointments, within three years. And if parolees can't get jobs, she argues, it can lead to a "chain reaction" of low motivation, misbehavior and things that will get them in trouble.
Tim Hand, deputy director of the DOC's division of adult parole, emphasizes that it's never just one thing that gets a parolee sent back to prison. He says it takes a serious lack of motivation or a pattern of misbehavior, and he plays down the possibility of a "chain reaction" tied to joblessness.
"We're not going to put someone back in a $30,000-a-year prison bed if they can't get a job," he says.
Technical violations committed by parolees nevertheless accounted for 30 percent of all prison admissions in 2008.
Of about 4,500 Colorado inmates released from prison in 2005 on mandatory parole, 63.8 percent made a return trip within three years. Inmates released on discretionary parole (having received parole board approval to get out early) did better, with a three-year recidivism rate of 48.2 percent. But the state's total recidivism rate, which includes the relatively small number of inmates who completed their sentences with no parole tacked onto the end, was 53.2 percent. (And that doesn't include inmates who've gone on to get locked up in county jails or other states.)
Since he took office at the start of 2007, Gov. Ritter has pushed to fund drug and alcohol treatment, educational programs and support services to lower the recidivism rate.
In logical terms, such programs make perfect sense: It's much cheaper keeping someone out of trouble in civilian life than it is to keep them behind bars. But politically, it's close to impossible to fund programs designed to help offenders when programs to benefit children or the elderly are getting axed.
State Senate Majority Leader John Morse, a Colorado Springs official with much experience in law enforcement, sounds hopeless talking about the current state of affairs, especially since many employers refuse to hire anyone with a criminal background.
"Society has made it very difficult for [ex-cons] to reintegrate," he says. "We've tied both hands behind their backs and said, 'Dance.'"
Searching for answers
Criminal records have long shelf lives.
Steve Luera picked up a single felony in 1993 for criminal impersonation. Homeless at the time, the Colorado Springs resident says, he gave a false name to a police officer who was writing him a ticket for an open container violation.
Now the 53-year-old, who once worked as a certified nursing assistant, has a spotty employment history and a long list of opportunities that have closed to him because of the felony. He says he hasn't been able to get a job in the medical field at all.
Sometimes, he says, employers are up-front about their preferences. He points to one ad on craigslist.org for a "crew member" at Auntie Anne's Pretzels in Chapel Hills Mall that calls for "no criminal background." But when dealing with others, he says, "it just seems like they just put it to the bottom of the pile."
Luera lives with his three cats in a tiny apartment, paying rent with a smattering of temporary and seasonal jobs. A six-week gig ringing a bell for the Salvation Army, at $7.28 an hour, was a boon.
Even with the weak economy, says Hand with the DOC, there are still a "heck of a lot" of employers out there eager to work with parolees. When asked, however, he can't name any; he explains it's been years since he worked in the field.
"The economy is what it is," Hand says. "Some parolees are having a more difficult time than others."
Horn's situation is complicated by his foot injury and the fact he recently switched parole officers. He says the parole officer he had when he got out of jail wanted him to focus on signing on with the Colorado Indigent Care Program so he could get it fixed.
But Horn felt he couldn't wait: He wanted to get moving, earn money and show his girlfriend he could be a good husband and a responsible dad. So he started looking for work on his own.
He talks a good game about refusing to admit the possibility of failure, but cracks start appearing the weekend before Christmas. Horn is already two weeks late paying his second month's rent to stay in the recovery home. He feels bad about having only $10 to buy a present for his 7-month-old son, and that his girlfriend doesn't want him around on the holiday.
Feeling "helpless and overwhelmed," he attends two AA meetings on Sunday.
"I'm going to be spending Christmas alone," he says.
On Monday, he gets a break, landing a job offer at a fast-food restaurant.
He attends training on Tuesday and even works a shift that day. The next day, however, Horn gets a call that he should turn in his uniform. He has a tattoo of a heart with a cross on it on his forearm, which apparently violates corporate policy.
Another holiday weekend looms, and now he sounds even closer to despair.
"That was kind of my last straw," he says, his voice wavering. "There's nothing right now."
But those words seem to strike some kind of internal sensor, and Horn's voice deepens as he continues talking. Later this day, he says, he's taking the bus to look for work at Broadmoor Towne Center.
"If I lose my focus, that's when I lose everything else," Horn says. "There's a better life out there for me. I've just got to find it."