The image of a prison work crew is ingrained into the national psyche: Something straight out of Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke” or Robert Duvall in “The Apostle.” Inmates attired in filthy striped coveralls wielding swing blades while chained to one another alongside a hyper-humid highway in some Southern hellhole.
And while such scenes may still play out in the U.S. — especially in the aforementioned Southern hellholes — times have assuredly changed. Prison work crews now have attached to them such terms as “vocational opportunities” and “workplace skill sets.” The goal is less to add punishment insult to incarceration injury than it is to prepare offenders for a life after prison in hopes that they do not become yet another grim recidivism statistic.
Such is the case in the Mid-Valley, where, for at least a decade, crews from the Rifle Correctional Center have been working on various Habitat for Humanity building projects. Lately, a crew of six to eight offenders has been wielding hammers, saws and drills a couple days a week at the 27-unit Basalt Vista housing project behind Basalt High School.
According to Scott Gilbert, executive director for Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork Valley (HFHRFV), the ongoing program is a win-win for both offenders and his organization.
“We get help building our houses and they get job skills,” Gilbert says. “And it’s not just learning how to frame a house. It’s also about how to show up on time, how to work with a boss, how to work as a team. A lot of these guys haven’t had traditional jobs. Learning how to fit into a work environment is as important as learning how to handle tools.
“Plus, this gives them an opportunity to give back to the community,” Gilbert continues.
It’s not as though a gaggle of hard-core violent criminals has been unleashed upon the community, armed with potentially lethal tools.
According to Travis Horton, operations manager at the Rifle Correctional Center, inmates participating in the program have to meet a demanding evaluation process in order to be eligible.
“These are people who are getting ready to leave the system,” Horton says. “Rifle is a Level-1 facility, which is minimum security. These offenders have been thoroughly evaluated. We determine that their history supports their participation in the program.”
Gilbert says he has never had a single problem with any of the inmates.
“They are extremely grateful to have this opportunity,” he says. “They are very respectful and they work hard. I’ve never even heard one of them swear. They have worked with our volunteers and there have never been any issues.”
Even though the inmates are considered trustworthy enough that they reside in a minimum-security facility and are allowed to venture forth into the real world, they are still convicted criminals.
According to Gilbert, they are required, upon returning to the Rifle Correctional Center each evening after work, to submit to the indignity of a full-body search.
And, while on the job site, they are under constant supervision.
“We keep an eye on them,” says Chad Robinson, who is in charge of transporting the inmates to and from Rifle. “If one of them goes downstairs to get a tool or some materials, we don’t necessarily follow them. These guys have earned a degree of trust. But they are supervised.”
Gilbert says that HFHRFV did some preemptive community relations work before bringing the crew to Basalt Vista, given its proximity to Basalt High School.
“We sent a letter out to all the teachers, administrators and parents apprising them of the situation, and we did not get a single negative response,” Gilbert says.
Basalt Vista is not the first place HFHRFV has utilized work crews from Rifle. They have worked on numerous other housing projects, and inmates often work side-by-side with Habitat volunteers and employees at the Re-Store in Glenwood Springs.
As well, according to Robinson, inmate work crews from Rifle also do projects for the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Town of Basalt.
“We worked on the Pan and Fork parcel, as well as the park at the new roundabout in Basalt,” he says.
All for a salary of … 94 cents a day.
“Those kinds of projects are beneficial for both the inmates and the community,” Horton says, “but working on projects like Basalt Vista really provides the opportunity for them to learn a skill they can use to find a job when their incarceration ends.”
Despite its history of mutually beneficial success, there are of course issues that may not be apparent to people not familiar with the inner workings of the penal system’s sociology.
Behind bars, there are hierarchies that may not translate to a workplace environment that requires some people to be supervisors and some people to be worker bees.
“I would say that about 50 percent of the people on the work crews have some form of construction experience,” Horton says. “And some have been working on the crews for several months, while others are new. Naturally, the ones with more experience are going to take more of a leadership role.”
“We will place a guy with little or no experience with someone who has more experience,” Robinson says. “For some of these guys, the first day might be learning how to read a ruler.”
Some of the inmates stick with the program right up until their release. Others do not last as long. For those who do stick with it, there is a possibility of gaining BEST certification that will help them land gainful employment once their debt to society is paid in full.
“BEST stands for Board of Examiners for Standardized Testing,” says Amy French, volunteer coordinator and family services director for HFHRFV. “It is a program used by the City of Aspen, Pitkin County and many other jurisdictions in the Roaring Fork Valley and along the I-70 corridor to verify the level of code knowledge for contractors and job supervisors. A BEST card is not the same as a contractor license.”
But, Gilbert says, it is an important piece of the post-incarceration employment puzzle.
“The BEST card can help get their foot in the door,” he says.
That “door,” however, does not include potential post-incarceration employment with Habitat for Humanity.
“We are not allowed to hire anyone who has worked for us while they are incarcerated after they get out,” Gilbert says. “We want them to be here for the right reasons — to learn a skill and to give back to the community — not because they might get a job with us afterwards. There are also some prison-related issues related to that rule.”
That aside, offenders taking advantage of the opportunity Gilbert provides seem grateful.
Juan Hernandez, a native of Lamar, Colo., is nearing the end of a three-year sentence. He prefers to not disclose the crime for which he was convicted.
“We all have got to have jobs in the facility,” he says. “I did this because, before, I did a lot of construction on the street, though I have never been a framer. I always wanted to learn to frame. I’ve never had the chance to work with guys like Habitat. They are so patient and wonderful to work with. They show me what to do step by step. This is a great opportunity to learn a trade I can take with me.
“It’s also a great opportunity to give something back to the community,” Hernandez continues.
Jessie Medina, from Dotsero, echoes those sentiments. He has been incarcerated since Dec. 2016 on drug charges.
“I like doing this because I know things need to change in my life,” he says. “I provide my body as a tool for the betterment of other people’s lives. It feels good going to work for somebody who needs housing.”
Medina has been working on the Basalt Vista project since November.
“I used to work as an electrical engineer,” he says. “This gives me an entirely different skill set.”
While the proof of the program’s efficacy will be in the post-incarceration pudding, at least one person who took advantage of the opportunities afforded by Gilbert has done well.
Wayne Klinck was incarcerated for two-and-a-half years for offenses he did not care to state.
He got involved with Habitat crew because “I wanted to learn a trade.”
Klinck currently lives in Craig and commutes five days a week to Steamboat Springs to work for what he describes as a “high-end” construction firm. He says he would not have been offered the gig had he not taken advantage of the opportunity afforded by HFHRFV.
“I was able to earn my BEST card,” he says. “They put together a class that met for about an hour a week. I took a test with Mark Kittle. He took it real serious. I think this is a great program, one of the few worthwhile programs in the Department of Corrections.”
On weekends, Klinck works at the Ace Hardware store in Craig. He is getting ready to start building his own house, something he says he would never have envisioned were it not for his work with HFHRFV.
“I’m very busy, between two jobs, building a house and taking care of my mother,” he says. “It’s very time consuming. But I’m trying to get my life back together. What I learned ay Habitat really has helped.”