Inmates build Habitat home in Rifle |

Inmates build Habitat home in Rifle

Heidi Rice
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
Kelley Cox/Post IndependentSgt. Jim Nelsen, labor crew leader for the Colorado Department of Corrections, stands watch as inmate-workers Julio Ramirez, right, and Henry Gonzales, from the Rifle Correctional Center, work on the new Habitat for Humanity house in Rifle recently. Twice a week, a work crew from the correctional facility helps with construction.

RIFLE, Colo. ” Julio Ramirez has some experience in construction, and he’s using those skills to help build the first Habitat for Humanity home in Rifle.

He spends all day on Tuesdays and Thursdays working on the home with a crew of about seven other men before he goes home.

But home for Ramirez, and the rest of his crew, is the Rifle Correctional Center ” at least for the time being.

“I do a little bit of everything ” whatever needs to be done ” siding, cement work, framing…,” Ramirez said. “I look forward to it. I like doing the work, and it’s for a good cause ” it’s a home for two families.”

The community labor program is a win-win situation for both the community and the inmates themselves, according to Dave Scherbarth, associate warden at the center.

“First and foremost, we are here to protect the public,” Scherbarth said. “But we believe we can have inmates in the community safely.”

No sex offenders are allowed at the correctional facility, a 192-bed minimum-security prison located eight miles north of the city of Rifle and part of the state Department of Corrections system. Along with community labor, it also offers inmates secondary education, vocational training and a reintegration program to successfully reintroduce inmates back into society upon their release. The prison is also home to a certified firefighting crew, which has responded to wildfires all over the state.

But the inmate labor program is not new. The correctional center was started as an honor camp to provide inmate labor in the late 1960s.

Along with helping the community in various capacities, the inmate labor program aims to release a prisoner who is able to function in society.

“We safely put groups out there, and it’s not just to provide service labor to the community, but also to provide basic skills to the inmates,” Scherbarth said. “Our facility is based on the concept of community re-entry, and labor programs go hand-in-hand with that. We want them to establish a work ethic and pride in the work they do. There are a lot of things that it teaches them that you don’t learn in a textbook.”

Scherbarth added that when the center takes on jobs, it makes sure that the inmates are not replacing regular workers in the community.

Lt. Chance Turner oversees the inmate labor crew program, which includes three labor crews and labor crew supervisors.

Turner said from what he hears from the prisoners, they enjoy being productive and working.

“An inmate told me just yesterday that it really feels good to get up, showered and dressed every day and go to work on the outside,” Turner said. “Most of us would take that feeling for granted.”

Turner was responsible for setting up the Rifle program with Habitat for Humanity, for which the nonprofit organization is grateful.

“We have (Habitat) homes in the Roaring Fork Valley from Aspen to Parachute,” said Ron Casto, the building supervisor for Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork Valley who oversees the inmates at the building site. “The inmate program is new to us. We started using it about two months ago.”

Some inmates have experience in construction and some don’t.

“We typically work with all kinds, and they seem to enjoy the time they spend with us,” Casto said. “The (inmates) are enthusiastic ” they can look and see their achievements and the beauty and skill of what they are doing.”

The Rifle Habitat for Humanity home in the North Pastures subdivision off 16th Street is being built as a duplex for two families ” Scott and Shari Edwards and their daughter and twin boys on the first floor and Thae Dunn and her 11-year-old son on the second floor.

Scott Edwards, in his late 30s, is handicapped following a car accident seven years ago that left him as a quadriplegic and unable to work. This will be the Edwards’ first home thanks to the Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork Valley branch.

“We are so excited,” said Shari Edwards, who works as a preschool teacher at Wamsley Elementary School in Rifle after receiving the news last year that they qualified for the Habitat home. “We live in a very small house in Rifle, and we don’t like to complain, but in this situation I sleep in the living room, Scott sleeps in the laundry room and all three kids are sharing one bedroom.”

Thae Dunn, 40, a preschool teacher at Children’s Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale and an ESL teacher for Colorado Mountain College, has lived with her son in Carbondale for the past six years in an older trailer, which was infested with mice and plumbing problems that left them without hot water for more than a year.

The Habitat for Humanity project broke ground earlier this year in February, and it is hoped to get the families into their new homes by spring 2009, if not sooner.

“It is absolutely amazing, and these (inmates) are so eager to be there,” said Kristen Wilmes, executive director for Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork Valley. “This is a win-win situation for everybody. (The center) has helped us tremendously, and I think it’s helping them.”

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