The escaped prisoner cut off his ankle monitor and made a run for Colorado’s southern border. By the time the Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC) sent out a statewide advisory at 2 p.m. on July 16, the six-foot-tall, 196-pound prisoner from the Delta Correctional Center had stolen a white Suburban and made it as far as Durango. “If you see the inmate,” a DOC bulletin read, “do not attempt to approach.”

But this escape would not go down in the annals of bold, successful prison getaways: The minimum-security prisoner was located and apprehended hours later by law enforcement officers in Farmington, New Mexico.

What made the prisoner’s escape notable, however, was that he had been a participant in DOC’s Take TWO (Transitional Work Opportunity) program, which since 2019 had offered low-risk prisoners the chance to leave prison grounds on specific days to work for private employers ahead of their release dates. As recently as March, the program boasted more than 100 qualified prisoners working for 20 employers across the state in positions at restaurants, construction companies, auto repair shops, and fabrication workshops. The program had two primary goals: helping employers with labor shortages, and providing prisoners with workforce skills and a bit of cash, both of which might reduce their chance of recidivism.

The program had been deemed such a success that, this past November, the state named Take TWO one of the initiatives that would receive part of a $1.1 million grant to reduce recidivism rates, which currently hover around 50 percent in Colorado. In March, Governor Polis signed a bill that ensured that Take TWO participants would earn at least minimum wage. The idea was that prisoners could use the funds to pay for things like restitution or save money for when they were released from prison.

But with the Delta prisoner’s escape last month, the program took a sudden turn. Employers who had hired Take TWO prisoners got a call from DOC officials after the escape, which informed them that prisoners would not be reporting to work for a few days. Those few days soon became a week. Without a clear idea when their workers would return, employers mobilized.

Andy Magel, the executive director of Mile High WorkShop, a nonprofit that provides job training and work opportunities for individuals transitioning out of addictions, homelessness, and incarceration, had partnered with the Take TWO program since 2021. Magel says Take TWO “was by far the best” program that Colorado had offered to prisoners to help them prepare for life outside of prison walls. Mile High WorkShop had hired around 10 female prisoners from the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility during its participation in the program. “They were all really wonderful people,” Magel says. “They were hard workers, and engaged in the community and everything we had to offer.”

The nonprofit was working with three women at the time the program was put on hold, all of whom were disappointed with the state’s decision to press pause. “They went from this pathway toward health and redemption and restoration,” Magel says, “to having the door slammed in their faces through no fault of their own.”

Magel sent a letter to Governor Jared Polis on July 22 explaining why he believes the program should be re-instated. “The impact it has on the women who participate from Denver Women’s Prison is profound,” he wrote. “It creates a ramp to normalization and reintegration that has previously been impossible. The program should be grown and expanded, not constricted.”

Meanwhile, other employers who’d partnered with Take TWO prepared their own appeals to the governor. One of those private employers, who asked not to be named for fear of jeopardizing future collaborations with DOC, had hired more than 50 male prisoners over the past few years from a Take TWO program run out of the Buena Vista Correctional Complex. The employer says Take TWO had become so popular in Buena Vista that “every employer in town wanted these guys. Generally speaking, they were very skilled, and they really wanted to do something different with their lives once they got out. They were all really motivated. They wanted to work, and you almost had to slow them down.”

The employer told 5280 that as soon as the state paused Take TWO, “we were losing a little over $40,000 a week” as a result of the sudden worker shortage.

This employer, along with roughly a dozen others, attended a July 29 video call with Polis, who reportedly told the business owners that this was primarily a DOC issue. But the Buena Vista employer says that didn’t match with what DOC staff told him. DOC told the employer that in the wake of the Delta prisoner’s escape, the governor’s office had instructed DOC to stiffen the Take TWO qualifying criteria so much that, in the case of Buena Vista Correctional Complex, the number of prisoners who qualified for the program dropped from about 50 to three. Meanwhile, according to this employer, the governor’s office wanted DOC officials to transport these prisoners to and from their work placements; DOC didn’t have the staffing to accommodate that request.

“The program’s ultimate goal is to improve public safety by reducing recidivism,” Connor Cahill, a spokesman for Governor Polis, said in a statement to 5280. “The Governor has instructed DOC to identify ways to reduce crime and is partnering with DOC to address their immense staffing challenges. To that end we will be rolling out new incentives to address our staffing challenges soon, which we hope enables DOC to continue important work of their re-entry programs while ensuring public safety.”

Annie Skinner, a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Corrections, also mentioned the staff shortage issue in a statement to 5280. “We are currently evaluating the best options for effective re-entry programs moving forward, given current staffing levels at the agency,” Skinner says. “And at this time, the Take TWO program is on a pause while we review and update logistics and criteria and address some of our immediate staffing shortages.”

Magel, of Mile High WorkShop in Denver, and the private Buena Vista employer, both say that shutting down the Take TWO program so suddenly was a short-sighted move that hurts prisoners more than anyone else. “There are over 300 people who have gone through this program, and one person made a stupid choice,” Magel says. “It may feel risky to run the Take TWO program and let people who are currently incarcerated outside of the walls, but my opinion is that it is significantly more risky to release people who have no experience or preparation for that release.”

The way the system currently operates, Magel argues, does not set up prisoners for success upon their releases—and the state’s 50 percent recidivism rate is evidence of that. “Killing the best thing we had going to help make [re-entry] a better process,” Magel says, “just feels like the opposite direction we should be going.”

Chris Walker
Chris Walker

Chris writes for various sections of 5280 as well as 5280.com.