Colorado parole officers balance oversight, encouragement

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In June, 56-year-old Kevin Monteiro was released from prison, where he'd been since the 1980s. CPR’s Andrea Dukakis has been reporting on parole through the eyes of Monteiro and some of the people who've worked with him. Today, we speak with Eric Brunner, Monteiro's parole officer and Hassan Latif, who runs the Second Chance Center in Aurora and helps former inmates. This is the fourth installment of a five-part series.

Photo: Brunner and Monteiro
Parole officer Eric Brunner, left, speaks with parolee Kevin Monteiro.

Those who work with Colorado parolees say their clients face an uphill battle beginning the day they get out of prison. On that day, the lucky ones get picked up by family or friends or are assigned housing by the prison system. But for many, freedom means being dropped off by a prison van somewhere in Colorado with a $100 prison-issued debit card to fend for themselves. Critics say the system sets up new parolees up to fail and poses a challenge to public safety.

"If you're released from prison and you don't have housing and all of your property is in a plastic bag, well, some people will revert to what's familiar out of desperation -- out of need," says Hassan Latif, who runs the Second Chance Center in Aurora, which helps men and women who've spent time in prison find housing and jobs.

More from this series:

Kevin Monteiro knows the challenges well. The day he was released from prison, he was dropped off in downtown Denver with a prison-issued debit card and no place to stay that night.

"I had a $100 in my pocket and a box of books," remembers Monteiro. "No family, nobody."

At the beginning, Monteiro says he had to wrangle with a parole officer outside Denver to help him with temporary housing -- something he says he was promised in prison. He was eventually assigned a new parole officer, Eric Brunner, who works out of the state's Denver office. Brunner specializes in working with offenders like Monteiro who have spent many years, sometimes decades, in prison.

Brunner says from day one, he asks his clients a lot of questions and does a lot of listening.

"Most of the time, it's us talking with them like actual human beings," says Brunner. "When you give them a little respect, they start to trust you. You develop a rapport with them."

Second Chance Center Sean and HassanHe says his job is a tough balance of making sure compliant parolees succeed, while ensuring that those who might be a safety risk are managed carefully.

Monteiro was eventually able to find a job and an apartment. But not everyone is so lucky. About half of Colorado inmates return to prison within three years of their release. That's higher than the national average.

Latif says the main obstacles to a successful re-entry -- housing and jobs -- are often tough for ex-inmates to find. According to a recent New York Times, CBS News/Kaiser Family Foundation poll, men with criminal records account for about 34 percent of all nonworking men ages 25 to 54.

In December, the Second Chance Center was awarded one of several state grants from the Colorado Department of Corrections to help with employment and other services for ex-inmates. The state's parole and re-entry offices are charged with helping former inmates secure housing, jobs, and mental health services, but critics say the state's adult parole division is overwhelmed and often falls short.

Creating a new past

Latif says parolees face another obstacle: It's not always easy to shake off the stigma of their past. So, he tells them to stay focused.

"If you keep doing the next right thing, one month after the next, the next year after that, sooner or later, people will get to see what you do and not necessarily what you did," he says.

Brunner says the system isn't perfect and admits the state could do more to help inmates when they're first released. As a parole officer, it's frustrating when a lot of work goes into helping someone and they fail, but also very rewarding when he sees people do well, he adds.

"I do like to watch these guys succeed and make it and get to their potential that they want to be at," says Brunner.

Find CPR's interview on parole with Rick Raemisch, the head of the Colorado Department of Corrections.