Dean Williams, executive director for the Department of Corrections, in his office in Denver on March 21, 2019. (Photo by John Herrick)
DENVER, CO – By John Herrick for The Colorado Independent. 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.
Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center. (Photo by John Herrick)
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.