Ben Oswald nodded approvingly as he looked down a row of fence posts that had been set in concrete Thursday morning by a crew of inmates from the Department of Corrections. “I can only see one post. That’s good work.”
Part of the Buena Vista Minimum Center’s Correctional Work Program (CWP), the crews supervised by Sgt. Larry DeLand and Sgt. John Turner worked 12 days on the construction of the new dog park and a chain link fence designed to protect the soccer fields from miscreants. DeLand runs the crew with a firm hand — you have to, he says, in order for them to be productive — but it’s clear that he’s proud of their work.
The inmates from Buena Vista work about 30 hours per week, often outside, often performing physical labor for federal agencies. Crews regularly work for the Forest Service and the BLM. They clean the Division of Wildlife’s fish hatchery near Franz Lake annually. One crew spent time this summer planting trees on Independence Pass. Another will spend the next several months clearing brush and trees near Wellsville on a Division of Wildlife-sponsored project designed to improve habitat.
CWP crews work regularly for municipalities as well. In recent months offenders have helped set up Salida’s Holiday Park, cleaned up trash along the Monarch Spur Trail and built a stairway of railroad ties on S Mountain. This week crews are likely to be found decorating Leadville for the holidays and installing Buena Vista’s Christmas Card Lane.
According to literature from the Minimum Center, over one six-month period inmates worked 14,175 hours, saving Colorado taxpayers $71,867. Crews worked on 21 projects for 17 different agencies, nonprofits or municipalities.
Agencies, organizations or municipalities are not charged for the services of the inmates. “We’re happy to keep these guys busy,” says Lt. Don Tanner, explaining that the program helps to prepare inmates for life after release from prison.
For inmates, the Correctional Work Program is a job. For some, according to Tanner, it’s the first job they’ve ever held. Inmates must be cleared to participate in the program. Violent criminals and sex offenders are disallowed. Inmates must have a clean disciplinary record. And in order to reduce what the DOC calls “flight risk,” inmates must also be nearing either the end of their terms or the point at which they are eligible for parole.
Working on one of the CWP crews is a bit of a plum position and, given the choice, many inmates prefer the CWP over work in the facility doing kitchen, maintenance or janitorial service. Other programs run by the prison are even more competitive. The prison staffs a trails crew which does contract work with the BLM. A SWIFT (State Wildland Inmate Fire Team) crew fights forest fires. And heavy equipment crew ensures that inmates earn skills operating equipment and hold a commercial driver’s license.
Inmates for the CWP are paid $0.60 per day for their labor; the SWIFT and trails crews are paid more. Money may be used to purchase toiletries, sundries and electronics from the prison “canteen,” or store.
Avery Tolles, Andrés Marquez, and Sterling Smith are stretching black metal fence at the dog park, building the bullpen adjacent to the Monarch Spur Trail. They’re happy to be part of the work program, they say, and like working outside and away from the facility. “I’m only in prison in the evening,” says Andrés, “the rest of the day, I have a job.”
Many of the inmates on the work crew are incarcerated for drug or alcohol charges, according to Turner. Andrés was busted for dealing cocaine. He’s is eligible for parole in January, and looking forward to getting back to his girlfriend.
Congenial and well-spoken, Avery is in for auto theft. He has a carpentry job waiting for him in Seattle, he says, where he will return if he is released on parole next year. He clearly knows his way around tools. Being outside and away from the facility makes the time fly, he says. But time drags for him on the weekends when the crew is not out working. “I’m not much of a TV guy,” he says.
Each has, or has had, dogs in their life. Andrés has a black pug named “Smoosh” that his girlfriend in Colorado Springs is currently taking care of. Sterling has a dog, too, a red heeler mix named Betsy who’s staying with Sterling’s mom in Lake City. Betsy, he confides, is smarter than a Weimaraner he used to have. Avery grew up with German shepherds.
It’s clear that the crew is motivated and interested in the work. They take initiative to solve problems, request additional tools and suggest alternative solutions. For the Salida dog park, the inmates were responsible for setting fence posts, stringing the fence, hanging gates, and erecting the park sign and bulletin board.
Despite working outside in the Valley nearly every day, the CWP inmates have a pretty low profile. They don’t often don’t get much in the way of public acknowledgment for their work, according to Tanner.
Both Oswald and Salida Dog Club’s Laura Pintane are quick to sing their praises, however. “They’ve been stupendous,” said Oswald.