To Keep Inmates From Coming Back, Colorado’s Prison Chief Wants To Ease The Culture Shock Of Their Release

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Colorado Department of Corrections Director Dean Williams, right, and Jeff Johnson, who was released from prison in November, 2018.

After nearly 25 years behind bars, Jeff Johnson was baffled by the world he discovered when he was released.  

A lot of it had to do with technology. In 2018, why didn’t people just call each other instead of texting? He didn’t understand how to pay for gas with a credit card and a computer was daunting. 

After going to prison at the age of 17, figuring out how to be an adult was even more unnerving.

“I think I struggle [with] learning how to be a man,” Johnson said. “Like doing the day to day things that...a man out here would do.” 

Ever since he became the head of the Colorado Department of Corrections in January, Dean Williams has insisted the system needs to do a better job of preparing former inmates for release and reducing the culture shock they face when they get out. 

“What we want for people like Jeff, who come out of prison, is to start that transition a year or two before they even hit the door,”  he said 

Williams advocates for allowing inmates nearing their release date to leave prison during the day and work jobs on the outside. Eventually, he wants to let prisoners wear regular clothes, cook their own meals and have more access to jobs and education. Another program underway focuses on the arts and includes a podcast produced by inmates in partnership with the University of Denver.

It’s all an effort to achieve his primary goal of reducing the state’s recidivism rate, in which half the inmates return to prison within three years of their release.  

So far, Johnson, now 42, has been an exemplary former inmate. He was sentenced to life without parole in 1995 for his part in a robbery turned murder. He was at the scene of the crime but didn’t actually kill anyone. After a Supreme Court decision found sentences like his for juveniles unconstitutional, he was resentenced. 

He’s now married, has a job in commercial real estate and he and his wife are expecting twins. 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News

Jeff and Jenny Johnson in their Denver apartment.

For Johnson, Williams’ ideas would go a long way to making inmates feel more respected while they’re still in prison and more prepared when they get out. He and Williams have also spoken about the need to improve the often hostile relationships between inmates and corrections officers and some of the more dehumanizing aspects of incarceration.

“I think for the most part you feel forgotten about,” he said. “But I think if, if we're making people better while they're in prison, they're going to come out here and become [better] products of society.” 

Johnson also concedes that inmates need to do a better job of taking responsibility for their crimes and developing better relationships with their families outside.  

Beyond his work to normalize conditions and transitions for inmates, Dean Williams wants to reduce sexual assault in Denver Women’s Correctional Facility, which has been wracked by scandal recently. He hopes to develop a system where female inmates can report assaults anonymously.  

Williams said he can learn about problems and potential solutions from former inmates like Jeff Johnson that he’d never learn from anyone else. And he said, given 95 percent of inmates will one day be released from prison, it also makes sense from a public safety perspective to do everything he can to reform the system.

This story was produced out of a Colorado Matters conversation with Jeff Johnson, a former inmate, and Dean Williams, the head of Colorado’s Department of Corrections.