Overcrowded Prisons Giving Old Inmates New Life

Aging prisoners serving long sentences are filling overcrowded lockups across the nation. Colorado prison officials hope a new program will help let some of these old guys get out — and stay out.
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Anthony Montoya has spent the past 32 years — more than half his life — in prison for burglary and second-degree murder. Based on his crimes and long institutional existence, it’s no surprise that a Colorado parole board has denied Montoya 11 times, and a corrections board has shot down early release three times.

Last August, as the morning sun streaked through the windows of an 11th-floor conference room, the Denver Community Corrections Board considered Montoya, who is 57, for supervised discharge into a new county work-release program.

“Anthony Montoya,” the chair of the board calls out.

“Motion and a second,” the woman notes. “Any discussion?” There is none — which should raise a few eyebrows, given his history. But what happens next is even more startling. The board, through a show of hands, votes to accept Montoya for the program.

Montoya has just been accepted into a new program that prepares long-term, once-violent inmates for their release. In 2013, when his sentence ends, he could simply walk out of jail — “kill his number,” in prison parlance — without any extra effort, but he says that Colorado’s new Long-Term Offender Program will give him the tools and support he needs to succeed on the outside.

“I’m kind of optimistic,” Montoya says. “I’m getting out, and I’m pretty glad this program’s there, because I’ve been locked up so long. There are going to be people down the line to help walk me through the next stages.”

The program is designed for inmates ages 45 and older who have been imprisoned for at least 15 years, including offenders with parole-eligible life sentences (but excluding sex offenders and arsonists). It provides a transitional reintegration for selected prisoners who have behaved well, acknowledged their crimes, and shown remorse.

Modeled after a successful Canadian program created specifically for lifers, the Long-Term Offender Program pairs inmates with mentors — former convicts who know firsthand what it’s like to walk out of prison after decades inside.

The March-April 2012
Miller-McCune

This article appears in our March-April 2012 issue under the title "Second Life." To see a schedule of when more articles from this issue will appear on Miller-McCune.com, please visit the
March-April magazine page.

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Even though a recent report from the Sentencing Project revealed the first drop in overall U.S. prison population since 1972, prison overcrowding and budget problems are still common predicaments around the country. Today, the Colorado state prison system is at 116 percent “on site” capacity, holding 14,835 inmates — roughly 2,000 more than its buildings were designed for. Incarceration costs there run from about $22,000 to $69,000 a year per inmate — the latter for older prisoners with extensive medical needs. Meanwhile, shelter at a halfway house, a major step out of prison for program participants, runs about $4,000 a year in Colorado (restitution payments, made by former inmates to compensate for the damages caused by their crimes, can partly offset the cost). L-top runs without a budget, marshaling existing resources from step-down partners, including prisons themselves.

The effort could bring a snippet of sanity to the madness.

“I don’t really know of any other place in the country that is focusing on lifers and long-term incarcerated offenders,” says David Altschuler, a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University who has studied alternative sentencing and reentry programs for nearly 25 years, and who helped design the Long-Term Offender Program curriculum.

The curriculum, preparing older inmates for a life beyond bars, is expected to reduce recidivism and even influence sentencing and release policies that have led to maxed-out prison conditions. But the initiative has also faced opposition from critics who say violent criminals deserve the maximum punishment.

“It’s not about overlooking victims’ lives. It’s not about compassion. It’s about being responsible,” says Tim Hand, the state corrections department’s parole-division director, who has heralded the program.

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About 120 miles northeast of Denver, the Sterling Correctional Facility holds more than 2,500 inmates, from minimum to maximum security, making it the largest prison in Colorado. It’s late in April 2011, and about 40 officials from the state corrections department, and Long-Term Offender Program partners, have gathered in the prison’s east wing for a sort of opening ceremony and orientation. Thirteen men in green shirts and work pants — the inmates selected for the pilot phase — occupy the front row of chairs. Most have spent more than half their lives in prison.

In the coming months, these prisoners will occupy their own wing in a minimum-security unit at Sterling. They will participate in a pre-release program that covers everything from learning to use a computer to catching a bus, from addressing their criminal history with would-be employers to interacting with their parole officers. The inmates will attend parenting and victim-awareness classes, and take part in counseling sessions, including something called dialectical behavior therapy, a trauma-related intervention program. Along the way, they will draft a transition plan with their reentry specialist that details their education and vocational skills, housing options, and money-management arrangements. And that’s all just step one.

After the men complete step one, a selection committee decides when they should go before the Denver Community Corrections Board. Anthony Montoya and another prisoner are the first to be considered by the Denver board that morning. Both are approved, which means they’ll move to a work-release program that will help them find a steady job; they’ll report back to the county jail every evening.

If all goes smoothly, Montoya will move to a Denver halfway house in two or three months. After another four to six months, he will be cleared for an ankle monitor and allowed to move in with family or friends, or to find his own home. In another year or so, the ankle monitor will come off, although he will remain under parole supervision for five more years.

From start to finish, Long-Term Offender Program participants will maintain a relationship with a single parole officer who is familiar with the program and its curriculum. In general, most parolees are assigned different officers as they move through the system, but planners believe that this measure of constancy will reduce participants’ chances of recidivism. “In a lot of places,” Altschuler says, “there are efforts within correctional facilities that are not in any way, shape, or form tied into efforts back out in the community when offenders return either under parole or some other form of supervised release.”

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The Long-Term Offender Program cohort, which is capped at 16 inmates, meets every three or four weeks with a “core group” of five volunteer mentors, all of them former inmates, and all except one still in the parole system.

“The involvement of the core group is the key piece,” Altschuler says. In most settings, parolees are prohibited from contact with other offenders. But Altschuler and other experts say that the group dynamic can help L-top participants avoid making bad decisions.

During the April orientation meeting, the mentors, participating via videoconference, drop their first pearls: If you’re late for a meeting with a parole officer, don’t skip it. Call in and let someone know you’re running late. If you’re an alcoholic, and you slip up and have a drink, come clean with your supervisors. The parole system is forgiving in ways the prison system isn’t, the core group tells the inmates — unless you let a small mistake turn into a big one.

“It’s not like they’re talking to some parole officer or prison administrator,” says Habe Lawson, the only core-group member fully discharged from the corrections system. “They’re talking to us. There’s a feeling of closeness there that’s invaluable.”

While it’s too early to assess the influence of the core group, case managers at Sterling say they’re already seeing a difference in the behavior of L-top participants. In prison society, individuals quickly learn to keep to themselves and curtail their interactions with case managers and other staff, but the L-top members have become a cohesive, if somewhat unlikely, community in just a few months. Anthony Montoya, for example, was leery of his case manager when he first came to Sterling. Now he swings by her office regularly to talk.

“I know I’m not just being pushed out the door,” he says. “The program has helped me to choose the people I’m around really carefully, and now that I’m getting out, you can believe I’m sticking with the core group.”

“Sometimes, one of the most powerful influences in an offender’s life is a former offender who has gotten on the right track,” says Le’Ann Duran, the project director at the National Reentry Resource Center at the Council of State Governments. “He or she can speak to where the new person transitioning home is coming from and can support him or her to make good choices. That’s definitely an emerging trend among the reentry field, but to apply that specifically to long-term or older offenders is unique.”

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Decades ago, when someone committed a crime that warranted a life sentence, he typically had a chance for parole. Through the early 1970s, a convicted murderer in Colorado who wasn’t given the death penalty would receive 10 years to life, meaning that after a decade he could be considered for parole. The system and the sentencing reflected a belief that even a murderer could rehabilitate himself — through education, counseling, or faith. But in recent years, parole boards have been leery about issuing early releases to inmates serving lengthy sentences and even more reluctant to grant parole to lifers.

Across the United States, stricter sentencing structures have overwhelmingly replaced indeterminate life sentences for violent crimes (stricter sentences have also been extended for drug offenses and repeat offenders). In Colorado, the state legislature in 1977 extended the minimum time served for a life sentence to 20 years, and then in 1985 to 40 years. The federal prison system eliminated the possibility of parole on new life sentences in 1987. Most states did the same, including Colorado in 1991.

Among Colorado’s state-prison inmates, Tim Hand says, roughly 380 are lifers with parole eligibility. Thousands of other inmates are growing old inside for committing violent crimes, but many could eventually be paroled, or serve their full sentence, and walk out with maybe $100, a bus ticket, and little else. Hand sees the Long-Term Offender Program as an opportunity to help parole boards and community corrections boards feel more comfortable letting those prisoners free. The program may even hasten those decisions and chip away at overcrowding.

“The facts are, they are in and they’re coming out, so what do we want to do?” Hand asks. “Sit on our hands?”

Or go to Canada?

In 2005, Hand traveled to Windsor, Ontario, to study a then-15-year-old program called LifeLine. The Canadian initiative provides an intensive, step-by-step-reintegration approach for lifers and relies heavily on the mentorship of former lifers. (In Canada, all prisoners — including lifers — are parole eligible.) Among the program’s guiding principles: most lifers are not calculating, experienced criminals or serial killers; lifers are among the most likely to succeed on parole; and released lifers can demonstrate the effectiveness of the corrections system for offenders. Of the 4,300 inmates with life sentences in Canada, which has no death penalty, one-third are under parole supervision and living outside prison.

Almost as soon as Hand introduced a version of LifeLine to Colorado in 2006, the concept ran into fierce opposition. Criminal cases dating back to before Colorado’s passage of the Victim Rights Act in 1992 lacked procedures to ensure that victims and family members would be notified of and consulted on prisoner transfers, parole hearings, and other major status changes. And the selection of several inmates for the pilot outraged their victims’ families.

One of the inmates who roiled emotions was Hasani Chinangwa, who entered prison as Michael Corbett but changed his name after converting to Islam. In the summer of 1975, Chinangwa brutally killed three people. His accomplice in those crimes, Freddie Glenn, was also charged with raping and murdering Karen Grammer, sister of actor Kelsey Grammer, that same summer. Chinangwa was never accused of or convicted for taking part in Grammer’s death, but over the years, many detectives, district attorneys, and media accounts have implied his involvement.

Chinangwa was sent to death row upon conviction, but Colorado’s capital-punishment law was ruled unconstitutional a few years later. Instead, Chinangwa was given the then-maximum sentence of 10 years to life.

Chinangwa says that after a corrections officer reached out to him in the early 1980s, he began turning his life around. He earned his GED, became involved with a juvenile-crime deterrence program, completed associate degrees in sociology and social studies, and attained minimum-security prisoner status. When he heard about the proposed LifeLine program for Colorado in 2006, he volunteered.

State corrections officials “decided I was one of the No. 1 choices for the program,” Chinangwa says. But after a public backlash portrayed the program as a backdoor to release for killers — including Chinangwa — the initiative was temporarily shelved, and he was removed from future consideration.

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Following the initial outcry, Tim Hand revamped the program, expanding the scope beyond lifers to include other violent offenders serving long sentences, such as Montoya. He also brought David Altschuler on board to provide guidance and feedback. Five years, three governors, and several name changes later, the program finally launched in early 2011 as the Long-Term Offender Program.

The first L-top lifer slated to go before the Denver Community Corrections Board is Gregory Wells. The board members’ decision could signal whether they’re more willing to approve parole for a previously denied convicted murderer because of his participation in the program.

Wells, 55, has been in prison for 35 years. He was sentenced to 10 years to life in 1977 for his involvement in two murders; his accomplice pulled the trigger in both cases. During his first years in prison, Wells made several escape attempts and assaulted guards, but he says he changed his ways in 1993 after he lost contact privileges with his 12-year-old daughter, who cried and asked him why he couldn’t stay out of trouble.

Wells quit using drugs and took classes in addiction recovery, mental health therapy, and anger management. He’s now “fairly accomplished” on the computer, he says, and would like to get a programming job if he gets out of prison. He’s aware that many people are watching what happens to him. He regularly receives letters from other lifers.

“I know it’s not just a responsibility for myself,” Wells says. “I have to make sure I keep that path clear for those lifers who come behind me.”

Since 1990, more than 460 offenders have been sentenced to life without parole in Colorado. They are part of a national trend: life-without-parole imprisonment has more than tripled since 1992 to include more than 41,000 inmates nationwide, even as murder and violent-crime rates have dropped, according to a report by the Sentencing Project. According to Ashley Nellis, a research analyst at the Sentencing Project, “A program like L-top could certainly influence policy. An increase in the number of programs like this would have a greater impact since oftentimes lifers are excluded from the small number of experimental programs of this nature simply because there is not enough space.”

As far as his chances before the corrections board, Wells says, “My expectations are that I’ll get through it. However, I have to look at it realistically, too. I am a lifer. So if I get shot down, it’s me.”

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