The Feel-Good Jail
How a Boulder County program is creating a kinder, gentler—and promising—method for criminal rehabilitation.
Deep inside the Boulder County Jail, down a maze of long hallways, sits a dimly lit cinder-block room. Inside, six male inmates in blue jumpsuits and Chuck Taylor knock-offs are preparing to do what they do every Thursday morning: meditate. Sitting on round, black cushions in rough variations of the cross-kneed lotus position, they listen as a volunteer from the Prison Dharma Network, an international, rehab-focused support organization, tells them to steady their minds, to put any negative thoughts on an imaginary leaf, and then to imagine the leaves floating down a river. After the 15-minute exercise ends, the inmates share. "I thought about my ex, and then I thought about my dad," says one. "When I started to get emotional, I just let the thoughts go." This cycle of meditation and discussion goes on for more than an hour before the inmates rise from their cushions to begin the next activity: yoga.
Here in Boulder County, these are just two of many atypical courses offered through an intensive inmate education and reentry program called Transition. Launched in 2007, Transition takes inmates who've reached "the stage of contemplation"—the point at which they sincerely wish to improve and change their lives—and provides unique instruction and support to help them do just that. It's one of several educational efforts at the Boulder County Jail, which also offers an anti-addiction program, courses in Bible study, Spanish language lessons, classes tailored to female inmates, even opportunities to work in the on-site garden.
Transition is the jail's most comprehensive, popular, and selective program. Up to 64 inmates at a time participate (out of a total jail population of 450 to 500), and admittance is based on factors such as age, the remaining length of one's sentence, and the severity of one's crimes. Transition members also get contact visits with family members, something no other inmates enjoy.
One noticeable effect of Transition is the collegial feel it gives the jail. Inmates and deputies address each other by their first names, incidents of jail violence have decreased, and recidivism has declined since the program's inception in 2007. Although it will take more time to determine definitive recidivism rates, the early numbers are promising. In Boulder County overall, almost seven of 10 inmates who are released from prison end up incarcerated again; among those who have participated in Transition, which has "graduated" more than 500 inmates, that number so far is much lower.
Jail employees also can attest to how well the program works. Renee de Alba, a onetime Transition instructor, was a private marketing consultant 10 years ago when she began volunteering at the jail. Within two years, she'd closed her consultancy and taken a Transition job, without benefits. "I got sucked in," she says. "People with happy childhoods don't end up in jail. People without substance abuse or mental health issues don't end up in jail. Everyone here has suffered more than we can understand. [Boulder County Jail officials] get that inmates have special needs and are actively working to address them." Her boss, Commander Bill Black, sums it up: "The bottom line is that we all live in Boulder County, and when inmates get out they live in our community."
Boulder's liberal stereotype is well-known, and it might explain Transition's "Boulderesque" feel. Over two days, I see inmates standing in the yoga tree pose, discussing segments heard on NPR, and making confessional statements such as, "I suffer from poor self-control and have a need for instant gratification." Classes require outside reading or homework, and inmates carry around fat folders of paperwork. If not for the blue jumpsuits, locked classrooms, and pungent, omnipresent smell—a mixture of unwashed bodies, disinfectant, and cafeteria food—you'd think you were at a community college.
But any skeptical inclination to write off Transition as some fringe effort is quickly dissipated by sitting in on the classes. After yoga, there's a session in which victims speak about the long-lasting effects of being on the wrong end of a crime. After watching a video of a woman whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver, the men—all Transition participants are male—discuss how many victims one crime can create. "Just like me," one inmate says. "I talked to my wife on the phone this morning. She's mad at me for being here and not home helping with the kids. My family members are all victims, too."
Next comes a class on character and ethics in which inmates discuss classic works such as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Old Man and the Sea, and, today, The Ox-Bow Incident, a Western in which a posse wrongfully hangs three men for cattle rustling. The film prompts a group examination of such issues as circumstantial evidence, consent of the majority, and the role fear plays in people's lives. "Fear is responsible for everything," one inmate admits. "It's why we get into gangs. It's why we do drugs. It's why we end up here."
Before another session, the doors on the cells click-whoosh open—Transition participants are housed together—and soon all the inmates are seated for "Roots and Shoots," a program favorite. They quietly listen to an animal behaviorist talk about the possible endangerment of black panthers, giant pandas, and black-footed ferrets. The course, created by a University of Colorado professor, teaches inmates to care about something besides themselves.
Transition also offers classes on codependency, substance abuse, anger management, and reentry, in which inmates are encouraged to think about how skills they've acquired through, say, leading drug rings could transfer to legitimate jobs on the outside. Also on the schedule: courses on family relationships, current events, and money management—in short, the kind of self-help seminars that everyone, not just reforming criminals, might do well to look into.
For evidence of Transition's success, meet Timothy Stoakes, a large, affable man who looks like a young Santa Claus. Now 40 years old, Stoakes has been in and out of jail since he was 18 for what he calls nonviolent, "nonconfrontational" property crimes he committed to support a cocaine habit.
Stoakes ended up in the Transition program while awaiting sentencing on a counterfeiting charge. "Tim was showing all the signs of someone willing to change," Black says, "and we thought Transition would have a positive impact on his future sentencing."
Which is exactly what happened. Like numerous inmates in the program, Stoakes has prepared an extensive profile to demonstrate to judges and lawyers his accomplishments while in Transition, and his goals upon release. The moving document contains 15 pages of handwritten text, along with letters of support and certificates for some of the courses Stoakes has completed. It shows that in the span of about 10 months he finished 74 classes worth more than 1,000 hours. During that time, Stoakes, an aspiring writer, authored five essays, 11 short stories (three of which were entered in writing contests), and the drafts of three novels. He also mentored another inmate toward the completion of his General Equivalency Diploma; taught classes to other inmates on self-esteem, writing, and racial acceptance; and is working on an inspirational book about what he's learned from his Transition process.
Although Stoakes was originally sentenced to six years in a state correctional facility, his Transition profile, along with testimony from Black and other jail officials, compelled the assistant district attorney to ask the judge for a reconsideration hearing in just 120 days. "I've rarely seen this happen," Black says. "Had Tim not been in Transition and changed the way he did, the assistant DA never would have made a recommendation like that."
Stoakes could turn out to be the sort of model inmate who could bolster the argument for expanding Transition-type programs. But could Transition work in communities that lack Boulder's "I'm OK, You're OK" vibe? It's difficult to say. Similar programs are having a noticeable effect in jails in El Paso and Denver counties, but Black says the range of programming in Boulder is unique, largely because of the extensive support the jail receives from the local community. He doesn't mean financial support; Boulder County Jail doesn't have any more funds than any other cash-strapped facility. He's talking about residents who are willing to donate time and expertise to courses that literally couldn't exist without them. "The most precious thing you can ask is for a person to donate their time," he says, "and we are blessed with that here."
Shari Caudron is a contributing writer for 5280. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.