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A prison mentorship program focuses on rehabilitation over punishment


More than half a million people go to prison every year in America, and Colorado is one of the latest states trying a new approach to support inmates through an experimental unit focused less on punishment and more on keeping people from returning to incarceration. Older inmates mentor younger ones. Colorado Public Radio's Dan Boyce reports.


DAN BOYCE, BYLINE: Jennifer Benson and her husband Gerry are touring the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility in southeastern Colorado, visiting from their home in Idaho.

JENNIFER BENSON: I can tell you having a child in prison is devastating and heartbreaking. And honestly, I never thought we would go from proud Army parents to prison parents.

BOYCE: About five years ago, Benson's son Bradley was locked up here, 20 years old and facing a 29-year sentence for assault.

BRADLEY BENSON: Going from the army to this, I thought I had found my purpose, right? And so now I'm in prison. And, like, it seemed hopeless, right?

BOYCE: Benson says his first few years in prison, he felt like he could only focus on survival, always watching his back. Terry Gay knows all about that. Like Bradley Benson, Gay went to prison in his early 20s. He's been there for 18 years now and says it's mostly been about punishment.

TERRY GAY: That's the only way they can benefit from - it is to keep us down - right? - keep us confined, you know, to slam us down and give us a minimal amount of resources.

BOYCE: But then something changed. Colorado's Department of Corrections is trying out a new approach to prison that's more focused on rehabilitation than punishment. A year ago, they opened a new unit with different, more relaxed rules based on systems in Germany and Norway.

GAY: This is 85. This is change-maker village.

BOYCE: Gay shows me around. It looks more like a college dorm than a prison cell block.

GAY: All the aesthetics is completely different than any other pod in this whole facility.

BOYCE: A big-screen TV hangs on a bright, multicolored wall - couches, a kitchen with a microwave, absolutely packed bookcases and way less tension.

GAY: I can sleep with my door open. I would never do that in prison. I can really do that here. Sometimes I forget to close my door at night.

BOYCE: This is the Restoring Promises Unit. Younger inmates like Bradley Benson are paired with older mentors like Gay.

GAY: I never thought I'd be a part of something like this. Like, this right here is amazing.

BOYCE: Gay is one of about a dozen mentors accepted into this experiment. He's hopeful it'll give him a shot at maybe getting his freedom back one day. But even if that doesn't happen, working with the younger guys has changed it.

GAY: I want to add value to these young men so they can be of value to their loved ones. Someone had to teach me that, and I feel like now I'm ready for that.

BOYCE: At an event celebrating the first year of this Restoring Promises unit, Ryan Shanahan with the Vera Institute of Justice says efforts like these focus on reforming young inmates. There is a New York-based nonprofit that started helping states set up special correctional units like this one in 2017.

RYAN SHANAHAN: The reason why we target young adults, 18-to-25-year-olds, is because they're one of the hardest age groups to work with when they're inside. They commit more violence than other age groups.

BOYCE: Shanahan says young men are also more likely to end up back in prison. So there's a potentially huge return on investment for every one of these young guys who can be straightened out. Also...

SHANAHAN: Frankly, the staff morale on Restoring Promise housing units is significantly higher. So in a place like Colorado that's having staffing shortages, might this be part of the solution?

BOYCE: Twenty-five-year-old Bradley Benson is likely facing at least 10 more years before he's eligible for parole. He's getting certified as a personal trainer and wants to do that on the outside. But until then...

B BENSON: I hope to take on one of those mentor roles and really being able to help other young men find their purpose.

BOYCE: His parents say watching him improve and set goals is bringing some joy to their lives as well because they say they're serving his entire sentence with him. For NPR News, I'm Dan Boyce at the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility in Colorado. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Boyce
With over a decade of journalism experience, Dan joined Colorado Public Radio in 2018 as a regional reporter covering major news developments in Colorado Springs and surrounding areas. Previously in his career, he covered state government for Montana Public Radio as the capitol bureau chief. Additionally, Dan was a reporter for the Colorado public media collaborative, Inside Energy, and a freelance journalist whose work was featured on NPR’s Environment & Energy Collaborative.
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