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Colorado’s new prison chief wants to focus on rehabilitation 

Life after prison

click to enlarge Dean Williams wants to make Colorado prisons safer and more effective. - JEANNE DAVANT
  • Jeanne Davant
  • Dean Williams wants to make Colorado prisons safer and more effective.

Dean Williams, the new head of Colorado’s Department of Corrections, aims to reduce the state’s high recidivism rate and help Colorado businesses at the same time.

Williams took the job in January after meeting with Gov. Jared Polis and has already started implementing reforms. A graduate of Ohio University with a degree in organizational communication, Williams moved here from his native Alaska after spending 35 years in justice and public safety positions.

For most of his career, he worked with juvenile offenders, and he served as superintendent of a large juvenile facility in Alaska. During a stint as commissioner of Alaska’s prison system, he led efforts to reduce the recidivism rate and initiated major reforms to improve safety within the system. He also served as a special assistant to Alaska’s former Gov. Bill Walker.

Williams had hoped to continue his reform work in Alaska, but Walker withdrew from the 2018 gubernatorial race.

“But as it turned out, I get to do the work here,” Williams said. “Colorado is positioned for some real major work that very few states are, including Alaska, and I think there’s some tremendous opportunities here.”

Williams spoke about his goals for the state’s prison system and how businesses can benefit from reform.

According to state statistics, Colorado’s recidivism rate is about 50 percent. Why is it so high, and what can we do about it?

Dean Williams: Well, I’ve been here four months, so I want to be gentle in my assessment of it… But I think there is a primary problem that a lot of states have… and that is, when you put someone behind prison walls, and you take someone’s freedom away, you’re going to have a lot of things broken, including your job, your place to live, your relationships. If you don’t reestablish all those things again upon reentry, you’re in trouble. And many states — Colorado, and I think this is true in Alaska — we’re trying to establish that too far into the system, almost upon release… 

So what I proposed in Alaska and started there, and that I’ve talked to the governor about here, is that we’re going to start this, not just upon release, but before release. What I’m looking at that’s different is to do prevailing-wage jobs before someone’s sentence is done. [A prevailing wage, which is established by the Department of Labor and Industries, is the usual amount paid in the largest city in each county, to the majority of workers in a given industry.] If someone has six months to go or a year to go on their sentence, why couldn’t they be doing a prevailing-wage job that maybe is not desirable, that other people don’t want to do? 

I did that in Alaska, and we started to show great success, and I had employers who wanted to hire people, who wanted to give people a second chance. So I’m looking to back the entire effort up to say, the last six months or year of your sentence, you should be able to get a job. That means more privileges for you, but it also means more commensurate responsibility.

What about those who say prison should be harsh?

DW: There is a culture that exists in prison that is not good, not only for them, but it’s not good for the rest of us. I was in a community meeting back in my home state of Alaska and a community member said, “If we just make these prisons more like a hellhole, people won’t want to go there.” Here’s the problem with that thinking: It doesn’t work. You don’t make people any better by creating an environment to be a hellhole — to the contrary. 

And you could look at other prison systems around the country … where they made prisons very, very rough, they became more violent. They were more unsafe, not only for the inmates, but for the staff. You got worse results, you got worse recidivism rates, so it doesn’t make any sense to make prison more punitive than it needs to be. 

So another concept — not one I thought of but one that I’m emulating — is normalized prisons. You make things behind the walls as normal as possible so you don’t get all these subcultures of gangs developing in prisons. So normalizing prisons and making prisons more humane is not just a good, noble value to have, but it also gets you better results. 

What will it take to get us there?

DW: I have tremendous support already in the four months that I’ve been here, of the faith community, of employers who I’ve been meeting with… You normalize prisons by bringing outside people in to interact, to start to have relationships with them for when people get out. … 

We have our first farmer who I’m meeting with next week. He’s a hemp farmer. I have been putting the word out that we want inmates employed, not when they get out but before they get out… When I talk to employers about this, there is overwhelming positive response. And I think when I talk to other farmers and others who are looking for responsible, reliable employees, well, it helps me get a path for reducing recidivism for these people grabbing a job, and I’m satisfying a community and state need to have a stable workforce.

Let’s talk about workforce development and education within our prisons.

DW: Colorado has a very robust correctional industries system. I’m very much in favor of it. However, I want to turn that system also towards reentry… I want it to make more sense for how that skill and that training behind the walls then leads to a real job that allows for successful reentry…

So here’s where employers come in. If I know that employer needs 50 or 100 or 1,000 employees to run an operation — I mean, the hemp farmer I talked about, he’s going to need a couple hundred [workers]. And if there’s technical things, or equipment, or training, or welding, or all those things that we’re doing now, I would start to help him develop the workforce to meet his needs, as well as many other markets and many other areas in the state. I have several other employers, who are in the small business construction area, who are very interested… And I’m going to do everything I can to help private businesses in this state understand that those employees can be your best employees.

Are there new ways to physically set up prisons that people are trying that might make them a more normal place to be?

DW: There absolutely are… I think, as a country, we’ve overbuilt the harshness of it, and those environments are very powerful, and that impacts behavior. We’re not going to rebuild in places that are built; we can’t afford it. However, I think you can start to set a different expectation. So that’s why I say, could not prison be a work camp? 

…[Prison] does not necessarily have to be a physical construct. It should, for some, because some scare us, and some have committed such heinous crimes that I don’t, frankly, want them to see the light of day. But there’s a lot of people who want a chance for redemption and want to be normal again, and their physical location could be much more meaningful and much more rehabilitative than it is. Even if there’s a bunch of prisons built in sort of prehistoric ways that were really designed to be very punitive in nature, I still think we can work around that issue.

What are you doing to address the 25 percent turnover rate among our corrections officers?

DW: We had a major victory on this front with the budget this year. The first year, we got about $19 million… In terms of fixing the correctional officers’ salary schedules, starting in July, this is in addition to a 3 percent across-the-board wage increase. There’s also a second-year plan that should help fix that even further. 

[Also,] when I talk about normalizing the prison environment, I’m doing that not only to make the system more restorative and more results-driven for the prison population. I’m doing that for the staff as well. I want that environment to change, because then prison becomes a better place to work… This is a different prison system, where you’re helping to breathe life back into people who are going to be coming out. And that will attract a wider range of prospective employees… It should be people who thought they might have wanted to be teachers, who thought they may want to be in law enforcement, but certainly a whole bunch of other people in the helping fields and medical fields.

Is there anything else that you would like our readers to know?

DW: I’ll just re-emphasize that I think there’s an amazing opportunity for this state and for the business community that is looking for reliable employees, who wants to give back, who wants to be on the right side of social justice finding redemption opportunities. I would say they have the best partner with me, because we have people who are just trying to figure out a way to get back to normal again… And so I’m going to turn this system to be business-friendly, and maybe I could help a business by then enhancing certain training behind the walls or skill sets or vocational training...  So I’m hoping the business community sees that I think there’s a real opportunity here, and I’m willing to move mountains to make it happen.

This article first appeared in the Colorado Springs Business Journal.

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