I wrote a bit previously here about how the notion of redemption is missing from the criminal justice system. This moving NPR segment looks at how long-time prisoners struggle to move on with their lives after release.
Out in the empty plains of northeast Colorado two years ago, nine inmates line up against a wall inside the Sterling Correctional Facility. It’s a line of green jumpsuits and gray hair.
The men, hobbling on canes, wait for the others to pull plastic chairs into a circle so class can begin. Today’s instruction is about what life is like on the outside: how to use an ATM, how to find a job, what the Internet is.
These men have been in prison for two, three or four decades. These are things none of them know.
There are more men like them growing old in the nation’s prisons than at any time in U.S. history. It’s the result of longer sentences and the elimination of parole. And the price tag is showing. It costs taxpayers $16 billion a year to house aging inmates, with their health care and special needs . . .
Any state that releases 14 or so of these inmates saves $1 million a year. So Colorado is putting inmates through a kind of school, called the Long Term Offender Program, to teach them what life is like on the outside.
All of them have been carefully selected — men with excellent prison records and a likely chance of parole.
Tim Hand created the program when he was division director of Colorado’s Department of Corrections. He starts off the meeting simply: “What can we do to help you,” he says.
This program hopes to teach these men how to navigate a fast-paced world; how to rejoin a society that isn’t sure they deserve the chance.
What it can’t do is help them face themselves. These men will go to counseling and take classes, gain perspective on their crimes and help each other, and in some cases, get paroled to freedom. But for many of them, that freedom may be easier to come by than redemption . . .
On a recent day [John] Huckleberry, [Greg] Wells, [Chris] Mayes and several other LTOP [Long Term Offenders Program] members pile out of a van outside the Sterling Correctional Facility. They’ve come back to visit with the next group of aging inmates who may one day be released on parole.
Correctional officers spot them as the shift changes.
“Well, look at you,” one calls out to Huckleberry in his suit.
Huckleberry beams. They all seem happy unloading their change and glasses and canes onto a counter like men who have never stepped through airport security.
But once they make it past the front security post and into the prison, they are all suddenly quiet.
A large metal door slams shut behind them, echoing down the long corridor in front of them.
Huckleberry seems to speak for all of them.
“I hate that sound,” he says.
On the other side of this prison is another group of men in green jumpsuits pulling plastic chairs into a circle. They are the last of a breed — lifers with parole. The newest lifers that come to this prison will most likely die within these walls.
Huckleberry and the men shuffle down the long hallway, walking past their old cells, their canes tapping on the concrete floor.
I really encourage you to listen to the audio version. It’s a powerful piece of journalism.