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The escape of a minimum-security inmate earlier this summer effectively shut down a touted prison-work program called Take Two, a gut punch to businesses struggling to find employees who had gambled on the 3-year-old program amid a historically tight labor market. 

Employers who participated in the program, which let 59 low-risk inmates work outside prison walls shortly before their release, say they were given no time to warn customers or revise work schedules before Take Two was curtailed, costing some thousands of dollars in canceled orders and reduced hours. 

A few employers say concerns about public safety during an election year are at least partly to blame for the demise of the program, which aims to reduce recidivism and save the state money on incarceration costs.

“It has felt, from our experience, that the intention was basically just to let the thing sit on someone’s desk for long enough to where it died with a whisper rather than making a headline,” said Andy Magel, founder of Mile High WorkShop, a Take Two participant that hires people who have been incarcerated, unhoused or addicted. 

Colorado Department of Corrections officials told Take Two employers in a video call in August that the program would be restricted on a directive from the governor’s office, Magel said. It was “laughable” to suggest the agency would limit Take Two to the point it was inoperable, because Corrections Department Executive Director Dean Williams is known as a reformer intent on reducing recidivism rates, he added. 

Inmates received wages for working in construction, manufacturing, restaurant and other jobs through the program, which was designed to prepare them for reentry by giving them a chance to make money, get job skills and re-establish a social network. Up to 20% of each inmate’s salary went to paying for restitution, child support and other court fees. Inmates wore an ankle monitor and had to meet several criteria to qualify for the program, including that they be considered a low public safety risk, have a record of good behavior and be near the end of their prison sentence.

The 56-year-old inmate who sparked the shutdown when he left his Take Two job site in Delta County July 16, cut his ankle monitor and stole a vehicle. He was caught the same day in Farmington, New Mexico.

Correctional facilities in Sterling, Buena Vista, Denver, Rifle, Cañon City and Golden participated in Take Two. 

“We were real skeptical at first, obviously, because we do work with the public,” said Jeannette Carmack, human resources manager for the city of Delta, which employed nine inmates when the Take Two program was paused. “But we had extremely good luck with them. We have some really, really good guys.”

Since the program was suspended, the city has been unable to fill any of the inmates’ former positions in its Public Works and Parks, Recreation and Golf departments despite multiple attempts to attract potential hires. 

Golfers putt on the 17th green at Devil’s Thumb Golf Course seen from Devils Thumb Road north of Delta, Colo., on Sept. 15, 2022. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“We’re just triaging it right now, honestly,” Delta City Manager Elyse Ackerman Casselberry said.

Take Two gave inmates money and skills necessary to help them land on their feet after being released, said Magel, whose Denver-based organization provides contract production, like packaging, sewing and assembly. 

One of the three inmates who worked for Magel this summer was able to send her wages — about $16 an hour — to her mother and school-aged child, making her feel like she could more meaningfully participate in her child’s life, Magel said. He had an emotional farewell with corrections department officials, his staff and the three inmates after learning the program would be cut. 

Having the program pulled was “really painful and difficult” for the employees, he said. 

Since the program began, 325 inmates have participated, and more than $273,500 in restitution and court fees had been generated as of June 1, according to a Corrections Department document provided to The Colorado Sun through a public information request. 

There’s limited data available about the program given its short lifespan. But initial information is promising. 

Of 49 Take Two participants released in 2020, two were returned to prison or to being an inmate within a year, a rate of 4.1%. The one-year return rate among all inmates that year was 8.8%. Between 2017 and 2019, the recidivism rate among all inmates was 23%, according to the Corrections Department document.

The Corrections Department didn’t provide responses to specific questions but said the agency is committed to helping inmates re-enter society with the skills necessary to succeed. Lack of housing, work and a connection to the community can all contribute to recidivism.

“At this time the Take Two program is on a pause while we review and update logistics and criteria and address some of our immediate staffing shortages,” spokeswoman Annie Skinner said. “We will look forward to working with the business community in the future on options to help reduce recidivism.”

Melissa Dworkin, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office, also did not answer specific questions but cited the agency’s severe staff shortage as a reason for the program’s changes. 

The corrections department “is examining how to continue re-entry improvement efforts while ensuring public safety is never compromised,” she said, adding that Polis’ top priority is protecting public safety and that reducing recidivism rates is a component of that. 

Employers who participate in the program learned shortly after the inmate escaped July 16 that none of their Take Two employees would be returning to work for at least a week. Corrections Department officials later said state staff would now be required to transport inmates to and from their Take Two worksites, a task the understaffed department was unable to meet, according to multiple employers interviewed by The Colorado Sun. 

Take Two employees previously used ride-hailing services, walked, biked or were driven in a van to their worksites, employers said. 

The number of inmates qualified to participate in the Take Two program was also restricted using a threshold determined by a department risk assessment tool. 

The suspension of Take Two had an immediate effect on business owners, already battered by inflation and a tight labor market. Some employers built business models around the Take Two workforce and reported losing between $25,000 a day and $48,000 a week in sales in the weeks after the inmate’s escape, employers and economic development officials said in emails received by the governor’s office in July and August. 

A Chaffee County business owner, for example, said the program filled a crucial gap in the labor market.

“I have not been able to hire anyone from the community in over two years — no matter how many ads I run, absolutely no one applies to work,” the business owner wrote in an email forwarded to the governor’s office.

In Delta — where inmates helped maintain the golf course, manage weeds, set up community events and fill potholes and crack seal streets — the number of turf maintenance employees dropped to two from the usual eight in the summer, after Take Two was paused. With tournaments booked every weekend, the shortage of golf employees was difficult.

Before the pandemic, Delta participated in a work release program with the Delta Correctional Center, in which supervised inmate crews worked at virtually no cost to the city, said Ackerman Casselberry, the city manager. The work release was stopped around the time the pandemic began and the city rearranged its budget to see how to replace the workforce they’d previously been able to tap at well-below-market rates. 

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At first, city officials were hesitant to participate in Take Two. 

“We felt like ‘Why would we hire prisoners from the Department of Corrections when we can hire our community members?’” Ackerman Casselberry said. But because employers don’t have to provide health care benefits to inmates, she said officials realized Take Two could provide “huge cost savings in the labor market.” 

It seemed like a win-win for employers, Take Two employees and the communities former inmates would be released to, she said.

The corrections department is responsible for providing health care to inmates. The city covered wages, workers compensation and accrued paid time off.

The suspension of Take Two comes amid a labor and housing crisis that’s had employers struggling for months to hire workers who can’t find an affordable place to live. 

In Delta, a resident earning the average wage — $18.13 an hour — could spend $944 a month on rent or a mortgage, according to Ackerman Casselberry’s estimation. That wage might not even cover a one-bedroom apartment in Delta, Ackerman Casselberry said, after looking at local listings on Craigslist. 

The city is conducting a salary survey to see if wages need to be increased. 

Buena Vista also has no workforce housing, said Ken Cook, who owned a restaurant that participated in Take Two.

Having “people who are already quote unquote ‘housed’ in prison (and) available to work is pretty much the best case scenario for us at this time,” said Cook, who called Take Two the best short-term solution to the housing crisis. 

The Delta Correctional Facility seen from E10 road west of Delta, Colo., on Sept. 15, 2022. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

His Take Two employees largely worked as dishwashers and line cooks and wanted to work as much as possible.

“If they weren’t getting overtime, they would complain,” he said. 

Colorado’s labor shortages have in large part been driven by the exploding cost of real estate in remote areas that began when the pandemic uprooted many urban-dwellers untethered from working in the office. 

While mountain communities in Colorado have long faced difficulty hiring seasonal workers, the labor market that’s emerged since the pandemic is the most challenging in at least 25 years, said Chris Romer, head of Vail Valley Partnership, a nonprofit that serves as a regional chamber of commerce.

“It doesn’t discriminate between white collar and blue collar. It does not discriminate between year-round and seasonal. It does not discriminate between experienced and inexperienced, entry level and seasoned executive,” he said. 

The labor shortage has hit the corrections department, too. Lack of staff in recent months has prompted the agency to drop a vaccine mandate for employees and lower the minimum age of prison guards to 18 from 21. Employees have worked significant amounts of overtime and vacancies have forced staff to close the library at the state’s largest prison, Sterling Correctional Facility, because its librarians are now working security, the executive director for the state workers union told The Colorado Sun last month

A former Take Two participant, Lisa Albanez, said the time she spent working for Magel between October 2021 and August was “humbling” and was saddened that other inmates couldn’t have the same experience. The 28-year-old — who spent much of her upbringing in foster care with one of her five siblings — began working as a correctional department warehouse worker at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility, where she earned $5 a day. After less than a year, she entered Take Two, where she worked as a seamstress and discovered a love of sewing. She was released from prison early due to good behavior, with about $9,000 in savings and is now working as a shelter attendant while she tries to get back into car sales. 

Other advocates of Take Two say it’s a net benefit to the state and that releasing inmates with no preparation is riskier than continuing the program. Take Two participants often have a GED or high school diploma, work experience, and pass medical and psychological screenings, according to information provided by the Corrections Department. They are selected by employers who can interview them as they would any other candidate. 

“These people who were in the Take Two program are coming into the community, probably in the next six to nine months, whether Take Two exists or not,” Magel said.

“We can either do that on purpose and intentionally,” he added, “or we can just have them walk out the door with very little preparation and no money in their savings account and no job.”

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Shannon Najmabadi

Shannon Najmabadi has covered rural affairs and the rural economy for The Colorado Sun since 2021. She was previously a reporter at The Texas Tribune. Email: shannon@coloradosun.com...