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Recidivism continues to contribute to overcrowding Colorado prisons



Earlier this fall, the Colorado Department of Corrections took another step toward improving its re-entry program, this one primarily focused on providing support to those incarcerated and soon to be released, enabling them to find employment before they are paroled. The idea is to help those who have been long-removed from society regain the necessary skills to embark on the journey of re-entry, and rebuild their lives. This program, which saw its first graduating class in June, now moves inmates from the general population to units surrounded by other soon-to-be-released inmates who have similar goals. These units give the inmates a chance to get acquainted with their parole officers, and obtain necessities such as housing, a job (even doing interviews via teleconference), soft skills training, as well as mental health and substance abuse treatment before leaving prison. However, even here overcrowding is an issue.

Mark Fairbairn, interim public information officer for the DOC, says, "Obviously, the more time that we can have an offender in one of those units the better off for them. ... [The] time [spent in these units] could vary. We have some people on short stays, like 90 days." He recommends at least 90 days, though ideally inmates would be in these units for much longer. The minimum may or may not be long enough depending on the amount of time a person has been locked up. And, depending how full the units are, some people may stay for less than 90 days.

Lowering recidivism really is rooted in lowering mass incarceration numbers, a problem that disproportionately impacts minority communities.

The Brennan Center for Justice, a policy institute at New York University School of Law, released a study last year that reports that of the over 1.46 million state and federal prisoners, nearly 40 percent "are incarcerated with little public safety rationale." This sends the message that prison sentences are not the only tools we have to make our communities safer, and some prisoners (and their communities) would be better served by alternatives. Particularly when the Brennan study estimates there are 364,000 inmates (25 percent of the current prison population) incarcerated for low-level crimes.

The Brennan report goes on to say that shorter sentences or alternative options to prison stays could save the U.S. government $200 billion over the next 10 years, with very little effect on public safety. That's a whole lot of money, part of which could be redirected to support more effective programs such as probation, better job or vocational training, electronic monitoring, community service opportunities, mental health care, substance abuse treatment, fines and restitution, or life-skills classes.

What does this mean for communities of color? Well, I can tell you what it's meant for me. Every major black male influence in my life has been through the criminal justice system in some way. This goes beyond "coincidence."

According to The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy nonprofit, there are a little more than 20,000 people in Colorado prisons. In 2014 African-American were imprisoned at 7.3 times the rate of whites. The Sentencing Project, analyzing data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, also found that in 2015, there were more than 126,000 prisoners incarcerated in private prisons in the U.S., including nearly 4,000 Colorado inmates (one such prison, Cheyenne Mountain Re-Entry Center, is located in Colorado Springs). Therein lies part of the problem. If prisons are monetized, what's the incentive not to fill them?

Other issues that stem from the prison-industrial complex are the loss of human resources and the disenfranchisement of voters, particularly within racial groups, which stifles their political power, often leaving them with few, if any, places at the table.

According to the Colorado Secretary of State's website, "In Colorado, it is illegal to register to vote or cast a vote while serving a sentence of confinement, detention, or parole for a felony conviction." Once a sentence is served, and a convict has successfully completed parole, felons can vote — though many aren't aware of that fact.

Still, with a large prison population, and African-Americans making up a disproportionate percentage of that population, it's easy to see how certain communities are hit harder by those prohibitions than others. And those communities also tend to be the ones that are already experiencing the effects of poverty, such as low-performing schools, and a lack of neighborhood resources, job opportunities and access to healthy food.

We've got to stop punishing poverty. Until we do, overcrowding in our prisons will lead to higher rates of recidivism, completing the circle.

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