Out of prison and onto the pass
September 19, 2007
ASPEN A young inmate from Mississippi reclined on the ground Wednesday after walking about 200 yards from the Independence Pass parking lot, on the way up the Colorado Trail as part of a prison work crew. “Where’s the inhaler?” he asked, laughing, and other inmates joked along as they huffed and puffed up the slope.The dozen inmates were part of work crew from a minimum-security prison in Buena Vista. The crew does jobs for government agencies and nonprofits. In this case, they were doing some heavy lifting of old snow fences for the Independence Pass Foundation. The pass is east of Aspen.
Crews from the Buena Vista Minimum Center have worked for the foundation each of the past 13 years running and have planted thousands of trees, cleaned up trash, fixed trails and done other volunteer jobs. A minute later, the guy from Mississippi was facing Grizzly Peak and La Plata, looking out over the mountains and smiling.”Put it in [the article], you got a guy from Mississippi, ain’t never seen anything like this,” he said. “I didn’t know you had mountains and mountains and mountains. It’s real beautiful.”The corrections officer, Sgt. Ray Kaspar, asked for inmates to remain anonymous for security reasons. He said there are concerns about someone making a drug drop or giving the inmates contraband.
“They get strip-searched when they get back every day,” Kaspar said. “That’s probably the worst part.””It’s tolerable dehumanization,” said one inmate, a 44-year-old from Aurora. Regardless, the inmates were happy to be out in the sun, doing something active for a day. Very few of them have more than one or two more years in prison, and a few were within a week or two of leaving. That’s the norm for a state where the average inmate serves 23 months. “It’s nice to be out,” said a 40-year-old inmate from Denver, who is near the end of a one-year sentence. “I haven’t been to the mountains for years.”
Work crews like this one, and other vocational programs out of the Buena Vista prison, save taxpayers $500,000 a year, according to the Colorado Department of Corrections website. In fact, 37 inmates from a Cañon City lockup originally built the Buena Vista prison in the late 1800s. As of June, the facility housed 826 inmates, 288 of whom are in the minimum security center. The Colorado prison population has nearly doubled in the last 10 years, from an average daily population of 12,205 inmates in 1997 to an average of 22,424 inmates so far in 2007, according to the state Department of Corrections. The highest percentage of nonviolent criminal convictions – by far – are for drug offenses, at 22 percent of the prison population. Incarcerations for theft, at 8.1 percent, and burglary (5 percent), are far more unusual.
But on Independence Pass, none of those things mattered all that much. The inmates seemed much more concerned with feeling good for a little while and letting the outside world know they are just like everybody else.Numerous inmates said one of the best parts of getting out for a day is contact with the outside world. They enjoyed seeing hikers and people driving by in their RVs. “We’re just normal people who made a mistake,” one inmate said.
“What?” another asked.”Well, some of us,” he responded, smiling.One of the inmates, a 19-year-old from Alamosa, was more concerned about the low pay – 60 cents a day, – than anything else. He complained about the 20 percent taken out for restitution, amounting to daily pay of 48 cents. He said the pennies hardly would dent the $7,406 he owes in restitution. The money, though small, is important to the inmates, who said they can buy things from the prison canteen. If family or friends on the outside put money in the account, it’s possible to buy beans, tortillas and hot sauce, said the 19-year-old. But if it’s only the earnings, then the money mostly goes toward toiletries and other necessities.
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The basics of prison life, however, seem far away up on the pass.”It breaks the monotony and takes the tension off of being locked down,” the 44-year-old, said of getting out on a work crew. “For me, this serves two purposes. One is good PR for the prison. Two is as a community reintegration program. It’s a transition from being in prison to being back in the community – with restrictions, of course.”The re-entry to society is a big topic among the inmates, especially considering the rate at which Colorado inmates return to prison. More than 40 percent of the inmates released in 2004, the most recent year in the records, were back in prison within one year. Go back five years, and the numbers get worse. More than half of the prisoners released in 1998 and 1999 were back in prison within five years.
Indeed, the inmates complained about the lack of educational programs and opportunities at the prison. The 19-year-old said he was rejected from a GED program because he had only a sixth-grade education, and other inmates said there was a long waiting list for the high-school equivalency. “Will they truly keep the recidivism rate down?” one inmate asked. “Will we be offered opportunities once we’ve paid our debt to society?”Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org