New Colo. law will allow prisoners to positively influence younger inmates

The law allows older offenders to be housed in juvenile facilities in the capacity of mentors


By Tracy Harmon
The Pueblo Chieftain
        
PUEBLO, Colo. — A new bill signed into law last week is a small statutory change that brings a large philosophical shift designed to help young prisoners get mentoring from older inmates and end the cycle of negative prison culture.

On May 6, Governor Jared Polis signed a senate bill into law that will allow housing of older inmates who will serve as mentors in the Youthful Offender Services prison in Pueblo. The prison houses violent or high-level felony offenders ages 14 to 19 and currently has a population of 183 inmates.

Now that the bill has been signed, Colorado Department of Corrections Executive Director Dean Williams said developing the program is underway. Inmates will have a big say in how that program will work.

Governor Jared Polis signed SB21-192 into law on May 6. Advocates see it as an important step toward ending the cycle of negative prison culture.
Governor Jared Polis signed SB21-192 into law on May 6. Advocates see it as an important step toward ending the cycle of negative prison culture. (Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images/TNS)

The program will follow the model of the Vera Institute of Justice Restoring Promise Initiative. The initiative goal is to create living units where the staff and the inmates develop a sense of community around their living environment.

"One of the first foundations is that you just don't go in and lay it on them — you really work with the inmate population. Before the bill we couldn't contemplate older mentors working with the younger inmates because the statute wouldn't allow it," Williams explained.

Adult, older mentors currently are developing a program at Sterling Correctional Facility. They are signing up to serve, in a sense, as surrogate older siblings or uncles to the younger inmates.

"Inmates are helping develop their own mentoring program which is so cool. We will then take some of those mentors, transfer them to the Youth Offenders Services program and then start working with those young folks and our staff to start developing how we want this place to look and how it should be different," Williams said.

Williams said instead of telling inmates how the prison will run, they are given ownership and allowed to share what they want their living environment to be like.

"When the men and women behind the walls make a decision that they want life to be different there, that they want it to be better there, we all win. And public safety wins because prisons now have more meaning, more intention and more purpose, instead of them thinking negatively this is an encouraging place," Williams said.

A more positive prison culture is one of the cornerstone foundations of creating less traumatic prisons and better results, he said. For example, when young inmates do well, they have an opportunity for a reduced sentence.

"It's a philosophical shift. We want some of these guys who have longer sentences, who have matured and grown up and who are starting to realize that they now want to give back to help young people," Williams said.

"That is a very powerful influence."

Williams said the program is a big deal for the Youth Offender Services program. The mentors act as leaders, trainers and have involvement with what is happening in the younger inmates lives, so the environment is more conducive to rehabilitation.

"These mentors, who have it in their heart to give back — I've never seen anything like it and I have been in juvenile or adult corrections nearly all my career. It is really fascinating when these men and women help others come to terms with what has happened in their lives it is a real influence and instead of thinking negatively it is just this very encouraging place," Williams said.

The bill, co-sponsored by Democratic Senator Julie Gonzales of Denver and Democratic Rep. Judy Amabile of Boulder, passed on a 35-0 vote in the senate and a 50-13 vote in the house.

Rep. Stephanie Luck, a Penrose Republican representing portions of Pueblo, Fremont and all of Otero counties, cast one of the "no" votes. Luck did not respond to a request for comment.

Rep. Daneya Esgar, a Pueblo Democrat, had an excused absence and did not vote.
     
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