Dean Williams, executive director of Colorado’s Department of Corrections, would love to see inmates earning a decent wage bailing hay and pruning hemp for farmers on the Western Slope.
“Why not finish out incarceration on a job? There are hundreds of people that we are releasing without jobs or without a place to live” each month, he told The Colorado Independent during an interview in Denver.
The former Alaska prisons chief believes that a lack of work and housing for newly released inmates only fuels Colorado’s 50% recidivism rate, which is 11% higher than the national average. That’s why Williams says his No. 1 priority is helping inmates find work and save money before they’re released. He says doing so will slow the revolving door between prison and society and will help drive down the state’s swelling prison population.
The inmate work program is the kind of reform that Williams, 60, has his eye toward as he takes the helm of Colorado’s prisons, spending much of his first months on the job at the state Capitol in Denver working on legislation.
One bill Williams has thrown his weight behind would make it harder for the state parole board to deny inmates parole and would bar prosecutors from revoking someone’s parole for certain minor violations.
Such a measure would help ease prison overcrowding, a top concern for lawmakers since the state’s 22 prisons, which hold more than 20,000 inmates, are about 98.5 percent full. Only 205 beds are empty, and those are projected to be filled as soon as this summer.
To house the projected overflow, the state has considered reopening a shuttered, high-security prison in Cañon City — Centennial South. The prison, opened in 2010 to hold inmates in solitary confinement, was mothballed shortly after because then-record-high inmate populations started declining, as did the appetite for solitary confinement, which many experts have come to believe is cruel and counterproductive.
Today, many lawmakers balk at the idea of reopening Centennial South. They want Colorado to focus on rehabilitating inmates rather than incarcerating them, not only because of the high cost of incarceration — $40,000 annually per inmate — but because studies show long-term imprisonment has little effect of deterring crime. Even so, lawmakers are in the process of granting permission to the Department of Corrections to use the $200-million prison under certain emergency circumstances.
Williams supports that. Down the road, he would also like to see the supermax prison renovated to remove all its solitary confinement features and converted to regular prison that processes new inmates into the system. He also wants to see the state move inmates out of private prisons. Having more beds in the state-run system could make that more feasible.
Williams, who grew up in rural Bellville, Ohio, moved to Alaska after graduating from Ohio University with a bachelor’s degree in communications. He landed a job with that state as a youth counselor and rose through the ranks in the juvenile corrections system, serving 14 years as a Division of Juvenile Justice superintendent. During his nearly three-year stint overseeing Alaska’s prison system, he visited Norway’s flagship prison, Halden. That facility uses stylish interior design and edgy art so that inmates feel less institutionalized and more prepared for life after incarceration. It’s the kind of approach Williams often references as the path forward.
In Alaska, he launched an inmate work program at a fish processing plant and cut that state’s use of solitary confinement by approximately 28%. But some of his reforms are being reconsidered after Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy replaced him as part of a broader cabinet overhaul.
Aside from tackling reforms, Williams faces the challenge of boosting morale among the department’s 6,000 employees, including many correctional officers who are working overtime and earning $42,000 per year, less than most police officers. That, and five serious assaults on officers in 2018, have led to the Department of Corrections’ entry-level correctional officer annual turnover rate of 26%.
Our interview with Williams is part of a series of ongoing conversations with key cabinet heads in the new Polis administration. Find our interviews with Dan Gibbs, of the Department of Natural Resources, here, Will Toor, of the Colorado Energy Office, here, and Kate Greenberg, of the Department of Agriculture, here.
The following transcript of our conversation in March, which included phone interviews, was edited for clarity and length.
Colorado’s prison system is at capacity, criminal case filings are on the rise, and some lawmakers have a strong opposition to the simple solution of opening another prison. There are no easy answers here. How aware were you of these challenges when you applied for this job? And why did you want it?
I don’t think you come into a job fully prepared for the challenges that lay in front of you. I have said that if you don’t enter this with some fear and trepidation then I think you’re being foolish. So I take this job with a great sense of humility and a dose of fear and trepidation. But that said, there are some things that we know, that are not new ideas, about how things can be different. … I knew Colorado had a prison capacity problem. I also knew they had a recidivism problem. … The good news is other states and other countries have made progress, and I think we need to learn from that. So, I took the job first of all because I thought this was a real opportunity to make real change to a system that is ripe for change. Secondly, my wife’s family is here. I want to be a hero to her. And it’s Colorado. It’s the outdoors. It’s the things I love as well. So that’s a bonus.
Your background is in youth corrections. What did you learn from that experience that you might be taking into this new role?
I think it shaped it a lot. There are clearly differences between running juvenile facilities and adult facilities — more than just age. There are different security issues. It did shape my understanding that taking someone’s freedom away because they have violated norms — because they have violated laws — is right and necessary, but what you do now that you have someone’s freedom really matters a great deal. I have embraced the fact that punishment should be the loss of freedom for someone. That should, in fact, be the punishment. But beyond that, the punishment does not have to be, nor should it be, the loss of expected responsibility for someone. It shouldn’t be the loss of human dignity. And in the juvenile system, we try not to make incarceration any more traumatic than what it has to be. There is nothing good to come from making prison more traumatic than it needs to be. … Making prisons really terrible, horrible places and making them really punitive, you get worse results. And, by the way, you make the prisons dangerous, not only for the people that are in there, but also for your staff.
Centennial South (previously known as Colorado State Penitentiary II, or CSP II) in Cañon City has become a symbol of over-incarceration, solitary confinement, and what some would consider the criminal justice system at its worst. But now, it’s this empty building the state has paid for and isn’t using. And some people ask, ‘Why not just use it?’ With your perspective as a newcomer, how do you view Centennial South moving forward?
One thing I didn’t know when I got here is the Centennial South, how would you describe it, psychology? The Centennial South aura? The Centennial South — I think I heard a legislator describe it to me as, ‘Centennial South has become our wall.’ He said it with lament. And I agree with him. It is a tool. It is a building that is already built. The governor does not want more prison beds. I do not want more prison beds. There is no plan to increase more prison beds. That facility, though, could be used as a backstop in case things go wrong. But even so, there is no money to run it right now. … So what if something happens to a facility? What if we lost an entire facility? What if we lost power to a facility for a few days? I’m looking for accessibility to a building that is already built. I just want accessibility in the worst-case scenario.
With the administration so focused on reducing the prison population, why are you asking to keep open a prison that was built for the most extreme kind of imprisonment – solitary confinement?
The momentum is still going the way toward increased (inmate) counts, and it has been for the three months that I’ve been here, and it continues to build in spite of the fact that I want a course change. A prison is sitting empty — granted, it was built for a completely different purpose. I have to consider that as an alternative despite the fact that it is not what my goal is. It’s not my vision. It’s not what I want. But pragmatically, I have to consider that this may take time for those changes to kick in. … I want access to it in case of an emergency, in case I lose a heating facility right now. Where would I put them right now if I had a major disturbance or a major disaster happened?
What emergency would require keeping open a prison that was built for solitary confinement? If a prison burns down, doesn’t that mean you’re going to be shuttling prisoners into solitary confinement?
The reality is we may have to do what we have to do. We will have to cross that bridge. But, you know, it’s not a hypothetical that something could happen to a prison. It’s happened in other states. It happened in my old state. We had a fire licking at the heels of one of our facilities. We packed up 350 prisoners and moved them to another facility where fortunately we had (bed) availability. And it happened in Texas with the flooding situation. It would be less than ideal … At least I would have them in custody … This is the lesser of the evils … It is a sticky situation to navigate. It’s the last choice for me. I’m advocating for opening a prison as a last-case scenario.
The state claims to have ended its policy on solitary confinement, but, to your knowledge, has it been ended in practice?
I’ve been here for approximately three months and the reality is that I am reviewing everything we are doing on that. I kinda want to reserve my ultimate judgment about whether we have eliminated it. I know in bureaucracies there can be places where things don’t get implemented fully. So I guess I’m reserving judgment until I get to every facility, because many of the facilities we’re talking about, I haven’t been able to get to yet with the (legislative) session in play. … I’m reserving judgment on whether we are practicing what we preach.
What alternatives to solitary confinement are being used?
The policy and the approach that we’re all looking at around the country is to not leave people in a cell but to bring them out into common areas. This sounds difficult. But the reality is we have to restrain people so they can at least [sit] at a table amongst others. You try to reintegrate them into normal activity, in terms of sitting around with each other, etc. … Also, we do this in other states, we have inmates that help mentor other inmates.
What do you mean by ‘restrain?’ Do you mean wearing a straight jacket?
Like restrain so that you don’t have free movement of your arms [waist chains]. The reality is it’s better to do that and have people allowed in living areas.
What’s your perspective on private prisons [Williams said he also has not yet toured any private prisons in the state]?
Fundamentally, we’ve asked private prisons to deliver what we’re paying for. I don’t blame them. But the reality is, if you’re running a business, and you’re running a for-profit business, you have an incentive for incarceration because that’s how you make your money. You don’t have an incentive to go after recidivism reduction. I’m not saying they don’t care about that. But the reality is that it just doesn’t translate in their business plan. The business plan is to have people occupy beds. Is that business plan inherently evil? No. But I don’t think that it’s necessarily in the interest of the state.
How confident are you that the parole reforms lawmakers are working on will reduce the prison population?
My focus has to be on what are we doing with the hundreds that we are releasing every month. And when 50% come back, that’s a problem. And I’ve tried to make it clear that there have to alternatives for inmates when they get out. Right now, there is kinda a one-size-fits-all with community corrections, and I’m not here to judge that, that’s local control, but my concern is that there are hundreds of people waiting to get into those beds. There is a fairly high regression rate of people returning from community corrections back to DOC again. I don’t have any criticism about any of those places. I’m saying there are a whole bunch of people that have been released that need an alternative plan. The governor’s budget reflects that alternative plan. He’s put money in to go after transitional work. … I just talked to some farmers the other day. When I talk to them about this, their response is, ‘When can we start?’ They have a hard time finding workers for $14 per hour, $15 per hour, in very remote locations. And I said I have hundreds of people that need a job before they get out. And they need a place to live before they get out. And they need connections and relationships that are different than the ones they have.
When it comes to releasing more inmates, there are some factors beyond your control. Finding an inmate housing, for example, is a challenge, not just because of the cost of rent, but also because these people have criminal records. What can you do about that?
If you follow the vision here, I did this in Alaska. I had 40 inmates working at the seafood processing plant serving the last few months of their time. Living in a bunkhouse. Eating there. Working there. Sleeping there. With us providing some security and monitoring all day. The only complaint from the employer was that ‘I want twice as many.’ They were the best workers. They left that job stint with money in their pocket — that’s several thousand dollars. I think the way we get around the housing issue is to think about what the last three months of incarceration mean. Why not finish out incarceration on a job? There are hundreds of people that we are releasing without jobs or without a place to live. I think there is something that I can do about how we reinvent the last several months or a year of their incarceration.
Should the parole reforms being proposed at the legislature this session — making it harder to deny and revoke parole and enabling you to recommend parole — go further to reduce prison overcrowding?
I think we have to go further. But I think you have to start somewhere. And I think you have to prepare for the change and get my department settled. I’ve been here for two months. I want more.
What do corrections officers think about your idea of ‘opening up the prisons’ and inviting in more community partners to help inmates with work training, mental health counseling and substance-use disorder treatment?
I think there will be skeptics. There always are. That kind of comes with the territory. I would say this to them: I’ve seen some facilities here where the staff works really well. There are some others that are struggling. I think staff will come along if they know there are results. And if they know there is respect in their pay. That money is in the budget. I think it is critically important. [State budget writers approved $27 million for correctional officer pay raises, many of whom earn less than police officers, in the 2019-2020 fiscal year budget.]
So what are the skeptics telling you about your plan to open up the prisons to offer inmates more services?
How do I characterize it? ‘We’ve tried that before. It didn’t work before. This is what we know how to do.’ … You can show officers that things can be different and they will come along with you. But I will say this. I think they need a pay adjustment that shows respect. And to bring them along and to lead them well. People also leave their bosses, not their jobs.
You acknowledge that there are drugs in Colorado’s prisons, like most others across the country. About 70% of inmates in the state’s prisons have some form of a substance-use disorder. But currently, the Department of Corrections offers practically no medication-assisted treatment until an inmate is released. Why is that?
I think many of us were in a spot at one particular point in time that there is no way we were going to provide Suboxone [also known as buprenorphine, a medication to ease cravings and withdrawal symptoms due to an addiction to opioids like heroin and painkillers] behind the walls. It was the thing we had been fighting for so long, because it is so easily trafficked, which is a huge problem for us and the safety of inmates and staff. But I think that we have to consider harm-reduction efforts. And I think we have to consider Vermont and Rhode Island to see what they have learned, so I’m not against it the way I was when I first started my career in Alaska. I think we have to continue to transform and learn from what those other states are doing. I’m definitely open to how we’re addressing addiction behind the walls. I think we have to be. I think it’s a profound problem. … There will be a stigma even contemplating it. But I’m interested in how we get ahead of it.
The Department of Corrections offers Vivitrol, which blocks the effects of opioids, to inmates upon release. But you don’t track recidivism among those inmates. Are you planning to change that?
I plan to look at it. In fact, I did it in Alaska. We launched an entire Vivitrol, or naltrexone, study that was being done by the (University of Alaska). Before I left Alaska, we were thinking the same thing. That is, if we were going to do this, we should try to see what the success rate is in terms of who we are able to get off of heroin a year or two after their release. Even though I don’t plan on launching an independent study like that, I think that study is still going on in Alaska without me, which is a good thing. And when that study is out, we will have some sense of what’s working and what’s not working in Alaska and that can be instructive to us here.
Switching gears. Some lawmakers want to repeal the death penalty. What’s your philosophy on capital punishment? [Lawmakers pulled the bill on April 2 when it became clear it did not have votes to pass the Senate.]
Well, I’ll speak for myself. I don’t know if I or any of my colleagues would look forward to being in charge of an execution. I can’t imagine the weight of that. I can’t imagine having the responsibility. If I was asked to do it, would I do it? If that was my responsibility, yeah, probably I would. But it’s a moral issue for us. I think people approach it from that perspective. Depending on what side of the fence you fall on that, you’re going to view it from that perspective. So, I’ll be honest that I hope I don’t have to. I hope that that is not within my tenure. … I’m a Christian and I take these moral issues very seriously, personally. I answer to a higher power. It would be a moral issue. But I think that’s the whole debate. People have different opinions about it. I would just say that keep in mind that someone has to carry out those decisions. I would do it if that’s the position I was put it. And in my own moral conscience, I said, ‘Yeah, OK, I can find moral grounds in my life.’ But it would require a lot of prayer.
Would you like to see it repealed?
Well, I’m not going to get ahead of the governor and I’m not going to get ahead of the legislature. My own moral compass aside, there’s a serious policy call and a serious policy consideration to be made. I think they are taking it seriously. This is not at all to disrespect people who have been victims of terribly heinous crimes, it’s just that such issues also have consequences for the people who are doing it.
What keeps you up at night right now?
I’ll answer in two ways. … I want to be careful about how I say this. I don’t want to come off kinda nutty. I think all of us are given a purpose. And because of what God has done in my life, I think I’m here for a purpose, for a reason. So no matter what the consequences, no matter what bad events occur, I know that I’m here for a reason, through the good, the bad and the ugly. … That being said, are there other things? Yeah, the safety of my staff. The safety of inmates in my custody. Those things command my attention each day.
Anything else you want to add?
I leave you with this closing comment. I was at Redemption Road CrossFit [at the Limon Correctional Facility], a program that just came on recently. There’s a Denver cop who shows up two or three times a week to work out with those guys. … We talk about what changes the dynamic. It’s that guy showing up. And by the way, on his arm … he has tattooed Micah 6:8 — seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. That has kinda been my mantra about leadership in this business: love, mercy and walk humbly. Even though things keep me up, I have great hope when I see things like that sergeant and other people from the community who have found their way inside. I want to see staff excited to start working with the inmates in a different way. At that (CrossFit) event, about 30 of them wanted to come over and shake my hand, organically. I was like, ‘Are they going to shank me or do they want to shake my hand?’ They wanted to shake my hand.