The sheriff’s department was awarded a $108,000 Colorado justice assistant grant in November to pay for new staff and materials for the program. In February, jail staff started offering life skills classes to inmates through the jail’s “Empowering Through Change” program, said coordinator and grant writer Cindy Ramsay. The classes offer help with subjects such as raising children, communicating effectively and thinking critically. They complete homework assignments and work closely with department staff.
Ramsay said the classes are giving inmates answers they have been begging for.
“We’re trying to help (them) see they’re not worthless,” Ramsay said. “You can do that with education.”
Four class sessions are taught once a week to six inmates at a time. So far, 107 men and 16 women have taken classes, and 11 have turned in applications for GED tests, Ramsay said.
The department purchased five new smart TVs with the grant money, which soon will be used to live-stream educational content from the Unlimited Learning Center.
Nowlin said the goal for the program is reduce recidivism for inmates, especially those with substance abuse offenses, some of whom get released from jail only to commit another offense and return.
“It’s really kicked off,” he said.
The classes are designed to help participants achieve goals in line with their personal “life plans,” Ramsay said. Those plans address individual needs such as education, addiction services, housing, job searching, budgeting and decision-making, she said.
Dozens of area companies hire felons, Ramsay said. Mentees are given tips on how to dress and conduct themselves in job interviews, she said.
Program staffers also give inmates information about how to obtain copies of important documents they don’t have, such as social security cards or government IDs, Ramsay said.
Though two educators usually lead the classes, participants also help develop the curriculum, Ramsay said.
She said the program hasn’t experienced problems so far. The students say they are learning a lot and are grateful for the opportunity, Ramsay said.
“The program fell together beautifully with everyone’s help,” she said. “It gives (them) a step up if they want it.”
Program participants receive a certificate that shows what they have achieved through the classes, Ramsay said. They can provide that for a judge or probation officer to show they are making progress, she said.
One of the biggest issues released offenders face is finding reliable housing, Ramsay said. Some have nowhere to turn and nobody to count on when they are released, she said.
Another high priority for the sheriff will be to set up a halfway house or detox center in Montezuma County, she said.
Nowlin said he hopes a detox center will come to Montezuma County later this year. The key players for that center, including county law enforcement, health and government officials, will meet later this month to discuss ideas for a center. The sheriff said there are spaces available, such as the old justice building or the old Montezuma-Cortez High School, for a detox center, but stakeholders would need to find a reliable funding source each year.
“We’ll be able to find a solution,” Nowlin said. “This is the perfect time to get (a detox center) off the ground. ... We’re decades behind. We have to get caught up and move forward.”
Ramsay said she hopes a detox center will be a “magic key” that will improve the county’s criminal justice system and reduce recidivism in the long run.
“We want to stop that revolving door,” she said. “It’s got to stop. The only way to stop it is through education.”