It’s graduation day at La Vista in Pueblo. The excitement is palpable as students, each wearing an identical shade of green, take their seats.

But instead of lining up on a field of freshly mowed grass under a canopy of blue sky, La Vista’s graduates accepted their certificates of completion in a visiting room, where the view outside locked doors is of fences dripping razor wire.

La Vista, a Level III correctional facility, houses women felons. But on a pleasant day in mid-May, about a dozen inmates who are months away from freedom celebrated their chance to be part of the real world not only as reformed individuals — but also as entrepreneurs.

Transforming opportunities

The event was one of two to take place in southern Colorado correctional facilities in May — a second ceremony was hosted for graduates of the same program at a men’s facility in nearby Fremont County. Several of the inmates from both facilities will soon be released into Southeast Colorado Springs.

The recognitions are the result of an increased focus by the Department of Corrections on education — thanks partly to the Transforming Safety project — as a way to ease former prisoners into the workforce upon release while at the same time reducing recidivism.

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“The Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition worked with community members and a bi-partisan group of state legislators to try something different,” according to transformingsafety.org. “We wanted a new approach to public safety that invests in strategies that strengthen communities as a way to prevent crime in the first place.

“This new vision became House Bill 17-1326, the Justice Reinvestment Crime Prevention bill, that passed with bi-partisan support.”

The bill reinvests millions of dollars each year in savings from parole reforms and created pilot programs in Aurora and Southeast Colorado Springs “to fund small business lending and a community grant program,” transformingsafety.org said.

Funding, including for educational programs, has since been extended to $3 million a year, divided between two pilot communities (there’s another mill set aside for low-interest small business loans each year), according to Pastor Ben Anderson of Solid Rock Community Development Corporation, who added the project will be evaluated by an independent third party and the Legislature will conduct a review in 2020. The pilot program has since been extended until 2023.

“Our program, the Fresh Start initiative, is addressing the formerly incarcerated and their families,” Anderson said. “We’ve partnered with the [Pikes Peak] Small Business Development Center and we teach [the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated] how to own their own business.”

The program’s first cohort, which began in February and graduated at the end of March, was for former felons who had already been released. One of the participants mentioned how helpful the course was and how he wished it had been available while he was still on the inside, according to Cory Arcarese, a consultant with the SBDC and Fresh Start’s instructor. Arcarese, Anderson and Pikes Peak SBDC Director Aikta Marcoulier agreed, and the program was expanded to include the currently incarcerated.

“When the grant came out, I’d been doing work as an SBDC consultant under [Marcoulier],” Arcarese said. “The community came together and applied for the grant and everybody came with a different idea. Pastor Ben and I came together and our idea was helping people start their own businesses. Solid Rock Church created the Solid Rock Community Development Corporation.

“That’s a very important component of all of this. The community development corporation encompasses economic development, affordable housing, healthy living and business development.”

Arcarese said the curriculum is modeled after SBDC training materials, which are available to any aspiring entrepreneur. Participants learned how to develop a business plan; track cash flow; determine costs, revenue and profit; establish target demographics; identify resources; and strategize effective marketing avenues. Incarcerated participants learned about search engine optimization (without internet access) and the women learned how being female (and for some, a minority) can be an advantage when pursuing contracts.

The graduates presented their business plans before their peers at the ceremony.

“Some will have to work jobs to save money in order to start businesses, but they’ll be better employees as a result because they understand business concepts,” Arcarese said. “Those who don’t start their own businesses will be eligible to be supervisors because they will know how to help their bosses read financials, they’ll be able to understand cash flow, they’ll be able to do all this stuff most employees coming in won’t know how to do.”

Once released, the graduates will find continued support through the SBDC and the community development corporation which, among other projects, is involved in transforming Mission Trace Shopping Center on South Academy Boulevard into a community hub — one that includes spots for startup micro-businesses founded by former inmates.

“The goal is to start five businesses per year,” Anderson said. “And the other side of starting a business is the employees — so not only should these businesses be started, but we want them to employ people. A strong component is having a business strong enough to where it can hire someone else.”

Lauren Ortega (center) and Shawna Bates greet Ben Anderson of the Sold Rock CDC.

A career, not a job

Melinda Nedd-Colon is prison operations in-reach liaison for the Colorado Department of Corrections. Nedd-Colon connects employers statewide with the 20 state and three private prisons in Colorado. One of Nedd-Colon’s responsibilities is to coordinate job postings within the system.

“I send them out to all offenders who are releasing (case managers send me those names) and then I screen them for the employer,” she said. “We do video interviews so some are hired before they get out.

“The Fresh Start program is perfect because it goes into our mission of building a safer Colorado and providing offenders with opportunity,” Nedd-Colon added. “When Cory and Pastor Ben said, ‘Let’s do this,’ we were able to get them into La Vista and Fremont correctional facilities.”

Nedd-Colon said her goal is finding inmates “more of a career and not just a job. A lot of it is having employers who understand [the formerly incarcerated] need a second chance and have to attend things like parole meetings.”

Nedd-Colon facilitated interviews in early May and of 59 participants, 34 were hired upon release.

“Many are coming out with jobs in the construction field,” she said. “They’ll do more than just flagging. They’ll learn [how to work with] concrete and there’s a demand in Denver.”

According to Anderson, the eight-week classes are intense and the goal is to graduate 60 percent of the participants. Classes are two hours a week and  curriculum is compressed compared to courses taught on the outside, due to time constraints.

Anderson said Fresh Start targets inmates who will be released within 90 days of the first day of the course.

“For women, we wanted nontraditional roles such as auto body and welding,” Arcarese added. “We have enough beauty salons and those kinds of traditional businesses. We also wanted people who displayed the characteristics of an entrepreneur.

“This is a pilot program and we want it to be as successful as possible. I think the case managers came to us with some good people,” she said.

Anderson said the program does more than provide a leg up for those who need it most — Fresh Start also helps build the business community in Southeast Colorado Springs.

“Even one of the city’s goals is business development in Southeast,” he said. “A lot of city dollars have been directed toward improving Southeast Colorado Springs. One of the strengths is going to be business development.

“We’re providing these individuals the training and education for owning their business and then giving them an organization that is committed to ensuring they are successful. There are many statistics on starting a business and failing in the first two years. We don’t want that to be our story.”

‘Know big things’

Carol Neel has never met Arcarese or Anderson, but their missions are similar.

Neel is a history professor at Colorado College and is heavily involved with the college’s “Liberal Arts in Correctional Facilities” initiative, which is entering its third year. Denver’s PB and K Family Foundation awarded the program a three-year, $60,000 seed grant to sustain the college’s partnership with Pueblo Community College in providing in-prison education, currently at Youth Offender Services.

“LACF has since raised another $15,000 and is seeking further funds to secure the long-term future of this educational contribution to the public good,” a CC news release said, adding, “Under this program, part of the college’s Collaborative for Community Engagement, Colorado College faculty offer core liberal arts courses at no cost to either incarcerated men and women … .”

Through PCC, students receive credit guaranteed to transfer to any public college or university in Colorado. Courses include introductory humanities, writing for undergraduate success and college math.

“We initiated a conversation with the Department of Corrections on how, as a 501(c)3, but more specifically as a liberal arts college, we could make a contribution to the state and region,” Neel said. “We were aware of a number of national models where liberal arts institutions and other academic institutions make a pro bono contribution to education in correctional facilities.”

A recent RAND Corporation study found that for every $1 investment in prison education programs, there is up to a $5 reduction in incarceration costs during the first three years post-release for a prisoner.

“To make that happen requires extraordinary cooperation between public and private agencies and we’re honored to participate with the DOC and Pueblo Community College,” Neel said. “There are very few things like that nationally — where public community colleges and private colleges and correctional systems work together. That’s a great model for making this a better world. …

“We say for our students here — and I would say for students anywhere — [education] makes your life richer and more enjoyable, to see your life in some kind of larger context and simply to know big things.”