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Inside out 

New private prison trains offenders to live on the outside if they get there

click to enlarge Inmate David Randell says that he has learned to balance - a checkbook at the re-entry center. But he expects that - on the outside, he wont have anything. - 2007 JON KELLEY
  • 2007 Jon Kelley
  • Inmate David Randell says that he has learned to balance a checkbook at the re-entry center. But he expects that on the outside, he wont have anything.

"God hears you."

"Stop moaning."

"You are enough."

"If nothing changes, nothing changes."

The wall-sized quotes that cover the halls of the Cheyenne Mountain Re-Entry Center lend an Alice in Wonderland quality to Colorado Springs' new medium-security prison.

The 18-month-old private facility houses around 500 inmates in a re-entry boot camp of sorts. Offenders spend hours each day in rsum-writing and life-skills classes meant to boost their chances on the outside and keep them from coming back.

Many residents see the facility at 2925 E. Las Vegas St. as the final stop before exiting prison. But they don't speak in dreamy absolutes about it, and the programs within don't guarantee they'll get out or stay out.

"I volunteered to come here, hoping I would be paroled," inmate David Randell said one day in January. "I was denied again for the third time. ... People are here for treatment, and it is not being used. For me, I am taking what I can, using tools, using the signs and trying to hang out with the positive guys."

CMRC's inmates, transferred from Colorado Department of Corrections prisons, are comprised of two groups: those who don't know when they'll leave and those who do. The latter segment consists of parole violators who will be let out once they've served 180 days. By many accounts, these individuals disrupt daily life in CMRC; with a release date in sight, they have little incentive to participate.

But they are still subject to the same firm regulations as everyone else. CMRC prisoners abdicate certain privileges when they enter the program. The facility's "culture" mandates strict adherence to the class schedule; outside pleasures are seen as distractions.

Residents sleep between eight and 11 to a room. They can't have coffee pots or televisions, though they watch TV in a common room on evenings and weekends. The prison's scaled-down workout room is without barbells, an amenity that many men use to bulk up behind bars.

Because the prison is relatively new, it hasn't yet gauged recidivism rates. But Colorado Department of Corrections, which selects CMRC inmates from a pool of medium- and minimum-custody offenders, touts the center as one answer to its recidivism woes. And CMRC leaders say their residents are accepted into community corrections programs at six times the rate that DOC inmates are.

The prison's parent company, Community Education Centers, runs programs in seven states. One recent New Jersey study showed that ex-cons who went through the classes were less likely to be re-arrested than those who didn't.

But some doubt the model will succeed in Colorado, saying that programming can only do so much.

"The fallacy is that you can designate a prison as a re-entry prison," says Christie Donner of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. "It is not in the community people are going to be released to, for the most part. They could be going anywhere. And re-entry is all about the specific opportunities you can access in the community where you are going."

Yet CMRC has taken quiet steps toward this goal, instigating what it calls the "Arapahoe Project," which will set up exiting offenders with jobs across the state. CMRC executive assistant Thomas McGuire did not disclose details, saying he "wouldn't want to venture a guess" as to when the project will launch.

As Colorado's public prisons creep toward capacity, CMRC keeps only two-thirds of its 750 beds full, awaiting DOC approval to add staff and inmates. The state benefits from sending prisoners to private facilities; it pays CMRC $51.91 per inmate per day, while it costs about $80 to house each one in the public system. But McGuire and others say the state distrusts private prisons even as it extols them. He cites the 2004 prisoner riot at the Crowley County Correctional Facility, an incident blamed on staff shortages and inadequate training.

"[DOC] wants more correctional officers," McGuire says, explaining the hitch to opening more beds. "We prefer having more staff. I think they keep going back to the old Crowley days. They want it weighted more heavily to the side of security; we want it weighted more heavily for re-entry."

In truth, CMRC has had its share of minor incidents. Five months ago, several inmates dismantled a staff member's computer and used the parts to build a tattoo machine. Last year, the state levied a $3,793 penalty against the prison because 51 employee shifts went unfilled between February and May.

Some inmates interviewed sensed the staff shortage. But mostly, they wondered what would happen to them on the outside.

In early February, Randell sent a letter to the Independent. He seemed to have softened on his earlier stance, shedding some doubts about the prison.

"CMRC has finally begun to take the steps needed for us to re-integrate into society, by having different counties accept us in their halfway houses with jobs ready for us upon completion of the program," he wrote in curlicue handwriting. "It's a really big deal and I am pretty optimistic about it. But, as with the nature of anything that is supposed to go right we'll just have to wait and see."

  • New private prison trains offenders to live on the outside if they get there

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