For Colorado parolee, life after decades of prison begins with survival

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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. This is the second installment of a five-part series.

Kevin Monteiro close-up #2
Kevin Monteiro was released from the Sterling Correctional Facility in northeast Colorado in June 2014. He had been in prison since the 1980s.

Kevin Monteiro close-up #2The weeks that followed Kevin Monteiro's release from prison were scarcely easier than his stressful first day of freedom. First, there were the little things, like getting adjusted to modern technology. He couldn’t figure out how to use the debit card he got from prison and was too embarrassed to ask anyone.

"I went into a store one time and I didn’t know how to pay for something,” remembers Monteiro. "I knew the exchange of money takes place, but I would stand at the back of the line and watch people [use their card]."

That was difficult, but surmountable. Harder were the basics of survival -- how to find a permanent place to stay when his two-week hotel voucher was used up, and how to find a job.

More in this series:

Every day, 17 inmates on average are released from Colorado’s prisons. Some are lucky enough to have family or a sponsor to take them in and others are sent to halfway houses. But many are paroled homeless. About half of Colorado’s parolees return to prison within three years of their release. Critics say leaving inmates like Monteiro to fend for themselves, without teaching them simple things like how to use a debit card or giving them enough resources to find work and housing puts them in a position to fail. And that, in turn, jeopardizes public safety.

Luckily for Kevin Monteiro, he found sanctuary in the Second Chance Center in Aurora, a nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated men and women adjust to life after prison. Hassan Latif, who spent 18 years in prison for armed robbery, founded the place--run by ex-inmates--to help former inmates with basic needs, and to offer counseling and a shoulder to lean on when the world outside of prison seems overwhelming.

The center is housed in a small, nondescript building with a few offices, but it’s a refuge for parolees trying to make their way.

Second Chance Center Sean and Hassan
Sean Ahshee Taylor works with Hassan Latif at the Second Chance Center in Aurora helping formerly incarcerated men and women. Taylor and Latif are both former inmates.

Second Chance Center Sean and Hassan

Latif says after inmates are bused from prisons around the state to Denver and Aurora, he’s seen men and women walk miles on foot to the center instead of relying on a city bus. It's a rough start, he says-- especially for someone who's spent years incarcerated. The transition can be so tough, some parolees are tempted to go back to prison.

“You know it doesn’t take much for this population to give up,” Latif says. “We try to change that attitude, because from my view, being locked up, I don’t see anything harder than that."

A lucky meeting

One day, Monteiro was at the Second Chance Center, getting help, when a chance encounter offered a lucky break. It was about two weeks after his release, and Walt Pesterfield, then the head of the state’s parole division, was visiting the center. Pesterfield wanted to learn more about the obstacles parolees face during what’s called re-entry. So Latif used Monteiro as an example.

Latif called Monteiro into his office and told Pesterfield his story. First, he described Monteiro’s initial struggle to get a voucher for a hotel from the parole office. Then, Latif told Pesterfield that the hotel Monteiro had ultimately been sent to was infested with bed bugs, and he pointed out the bites covering Monteiro’s arms. Furthermore, he said, Monteiro’s parole officer was making the newly released inmate jump through unnecessary hoops, including forcing him to take multiple long trips to the parole office to check in and do paperwork.

“I explained how it made our jobs impossible because we couldn’t get [Monteiro] his resume done, we couldn’t send him for [job] placement if he had to spend hours in transport,” says Latif.

Monteiro recalls Pesterfield shaking his head in disbelief.

“He said, 'Re-entry is not supposed to go like this,'” Monteiro remembers. “I said, well, I spend a lot of my time on buses and not finding a job and what I’m really worrying about is shelter.”

Monteiro riding bus
Once released, Monteiro and other parolees in the Denver metro area must make multiple stops--often miles apart--in order to fulfill their parole requirements.

Monteiro riding busThe next day, Monteiro got a call from Pesterfield’s office. The parole division was assigning Monteiro a new parole officer -- one whom Pesterfield's office hoped would be a better fit. The new one had experience working with inmates who had spent many years in prison.

The new parole officer helped, but the transition to the outside world was still much tougher than Monteiro had expected. He remembers some really bad days, like the day he called the guys at the Second Chance Center and said he wanted to give up and go back to prison. Monteiro says he’ll never forget what Hassan Latif said to him.

“‘He said, 'I want to tell you something. Don’t you ever say that again,' ” Monteiro remembers. "Did we not tell you, we got you, man?" Latif added. It was a promise of support from the guys at the Second Chance Center -- a promise Monteiro desperately needed.

Bedding down at Denver mosque

Monteiro had another lucky break a few weeks later. He's been worshipping at a local mosque; the imam there invited him to sleep there while he searched for a permanent place to stay.

His new home was the carpeted floor near the main sanctuary. Each morning, he’d fold up his blanket and move his few possessions to a corner of the room. He was much happier living there. There were no bedbugs.

Things were also looking up for Monteiro in other ways. He found work -- slaughtering sheep for minimum wage -- through the St. Francis Center. The Denver organization helps the unemployed find jobs. Eventually he found another job, directing traffic at construction sites around the metro area, which paid a little better.

Long, hard journey

Monteiro says he learned a lot during his many years in prison. Early on, he got in trouble a lot. He fought with other inmates, argued with staff. He spent seven years in administrative segregation--the prison term for solitary confinement. But he says eventually his thinking just started changing, partly because of his faith. Finally, he says, he was able to take responsibility for the life he took. He says he started trying to mentor younger inmates in prison to -- in a way -- make up for what he did.

“I started realizing a lot of us have broken hearts, abused families, no fathers, mothers on drugs and different things,” Monteiro says.

He began reading philosophy and religious texts, and he started seeing people differently.

“There’s a scripture that really stuck out with my in the book of Hebrews. It said be careful how you treat people because you might be entertaining angels. So when I look at people, I don’t see people like I used to see them. I see them in a very spiritual way now, and that’s how I treat them."

Monteiro says the best parts of freedom are the little things -- like getting a paycheck and buying his own cup of coffee.

Find more of Monteiro's story.