Trinidad State has captive audience in new prison education program
Trinidad Campus / May 3, 2016 / Written by Greg Boyce
Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday night, 14 dedicated people gather to learn about business. Specifically how to be an entrepreneur. Hand-picked and attentive, they have at least two things in common: All are men, and all are inmates at the Minimum Security Trinidad Correctional Facility east of Trinidad. Amazingly, half the class members have voluntarily delayed their parole dates so they can complete the course, which started in March and will run through August. “They ask great questions and it’s really evident that they want to be there,” said Trinidad State Instructor LiAnn Richardson.
Last year the Colorado Department of Corrections asked Trinidad State, said Dean of Instruction Keith Gipson, to provide entrepreneur training. “They needed something in business because they (Department of Corrections) felt a lot of these people would not be able to get jobs in corporations because of their backgrounds, and that they probably would be interested in starting businesses of their own once they get back out in the world.”
On a recent evening these men, polite to a fault and wearing identical green jumpsuits, shared their business ideas. Dog training, professional cleaning company, a unique twist in real estate sales. Marketing, advertising, debt and the most thorny question: ‘How should we handle talking about our criminal record?’
“When you hold a conversation there are no blank stares – they all know what you’re talking about,” said Richardson. “I wish all students were like that.” She’s been teaching for 17 years, but never adults. At first, “It was really unnerving. It’s not somewhere you’d want to be. But when you get into the classroom and you have students that are engaged you forget you’re in a prison. And that’s actually a challenge because I have to remember where I am. When you get into the classroom it would be just as if you were in any TSJC classroom really.”
This program was made possible by a law passed in Colorado in 2012. It allowed the Department of Corrections to expand educational offerings to take advantage of expertise available at area colleges. The Corrections Department has offered educational programs behind prison walls for decades. At the Trinidad Correctional Facility that includes training for Customer Service, Computer Information Systems, Foundations of Career and Technical Education, IT Essentials and a Carpentry class. But this program paves the way for more classes.
“Trinidad State, Colorado Mountain College, Adams State University, Pueblo Community College, Red Rocks Community College all offer classes to inmates,” said Programs Coordinator Melissa Smith. “Everyone brings in something that is kind of unique to their school or something that the offenders are looking for specifically. So the entrepreneur program is huge for offenders, because that’s something that helps when they’re released. So we utilized Trinidad State’s expertise to bring that program in.” Talks have already begun to expand Trinidad State’s offerings at the Trinidad Correctional Facility.
In prison, everything’s for sale
It took a while to set up the program because of strict rules on what can be taken into prison. “The rule in a prison is nothing in, nothing out,” said Richardson. “You go through all this training and they talk about not taking notes from prisoners, but I have all of their homework. So we use a receipt system in my class where every time they turn in an assignment I actually pull out a receipt book, like a cash receipt book and they get a receipt for every document they turn in. We had to create this so it is self-sufficient and also so the inmates could carry their materials back to their home (cell) and not have it confiscated. They’re only allowed five books at any time, but they have more than five books in my two classes alone at any given time. It goes into this really nice little case that has the TSJC logo on it. It’s kind of a neat advertising tool because other inmates see them and recognize they’re in the business program through Trinidad State. The case has to be clear so it’s see-through. They have Trinidad State pencils and pens, they have to have the Trinidad State logo on them. Every piece of material they have is actually identified with the Trinidad State logo on it. In prison everything is for sale. So we needed to be able to control their materials and make sure they were able to hold onto it and not have it taken from them. So by having the TSJC logo on everything it protects it, so if anything is seen in the hands of a prisoner who is not in the program those materials go back to the director of the education program.”
“The expectations from day one are laid out pretty clear about what you can and cannot talk about, what you can and cannot do,” continued Richardson. “There is no internet. If they ask a question and I don’t know the answer my response has to be, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll get that information to you in the next class.’ I think that’s probably the biggest challenge.”
Those in the corrections industry know prisoner education pays off. “There hasn’t been enough time to measure the recidivism rate related to this program,” said Smith. “But on the average we find across the board for all correctional areas across the nation with education the recidivism rate ranks approximately 25 to 30 percent. On an average Colorado’s recidivism rate (the number who end up back in prison) is about 50 percent.”
Trinidad State has a three-year contract with the Department of Corrections.