On May 2, the Prison Project hosted Adrienne Russman to present “Perspectives on Colorado Prisons,” a discussion on prison reform, the growing research on public health relating to childhood trauma, and how this impacts prison demographics. A graduate of Wesleyan University, Russman has served as a liason between Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office and the Department of Corrections. Additionally, she serves as the officer for special initiatives for the Department of Corrections.
Colorado College history professor Carol Neel introduced the topic by calling Colorado the “world’s center of incarceration” with some of the nation’s largest and highest security prisons, housing some of the most dangerous criminals.
Russman began by speaking to some of the newly adopted notions of the Department of Corrections about the people it incarcerates. For example, they label those convicted of drug trafficking as “misguided entrepreneurs”—who weren’t afforded the opportunities to pursue a more honest trade—instead of fundamentally bad people.
She then showed a video taken at a Colorado prison of a game played with inmates, officers, and volunteers that asked participants to step forward if they had experienced certain events in their lives. Among these were sexual abuse, hearing gunshots in the neighborhood in which they grew up, or whether or not they dropped out of high school.
Russman also spoke about new research done on inmates about adverse childhood experiences, highlighting three distinct yet interconnected subtopics. The first category, personal experiences, includes having suffered physical, verbal, and/or sexual abuse, or physical and emotional neglect. The second category encompasses experiences of other family members, such as having a family member who struggles with alcoholism, who has been incarcerated, who has beendiagnosed with mental illness, who has disappeared, or having a mother who was a victim of domestic violence. Finally, the third category involves social and environmental experiences, such as lack of economic stability, the conditions of the neighborhood in which they grew up, their educational background, and more.
Russman presented data and charts that, in her words, proved “trauma is inherited”; the more of these experiences a person had as a child, the more likely they were to be incarcerated as an adult.
Bill Hochman, retired Professor Emeritus at Colorado College, discussed the issue of imprisoned minors; “I taught for four years at the juvenile detention center, and I came away with the feeling that what happens immediately outside afterwards was as important as what happened inside [the detention center].”
“You know, I kept urging them, go to school, go to school…‘Oh yes, Professor, we will…’ but I’m told they had no place to go back to, no support,” Hochman continued. “A bunch of [CC students] went out [with me] one day to talk to five of the inmates there. At the end, one of them turned to the Colorado College kids and said, ‘you guys have no idea where we come from.’ That was a very sad thing.”
Russman agreed: “Incarceration is actually a factor leading to incarceration. So, having gone to prison makes you more likely to go to prison. And yet we continue to put people in prison.”
“And I think that that’s probably the appropriate response for a small number of people, but really, we’re going to be looking at what is our end goal,” Russaman continued. “That is, safer communities, no more new victims, I don’t know, people who are contributors to our communities, and what we can do to get there … from what I’ve seen from corrections, the field … has such a long way to go … [Colorado] doesn’t allow state funding to go towards higher education in prison, for example.”
Russman also discussed the miniscule wages that Colorado prisoners receive as compensation from their work, which is under $3 per hour. This leaves inmates with next to nothing when they are released. While the minimum wage for Colorado is $10.20 per hour, corrections officers get paid around $12.70, and this comparison isn’t much different in any other state.
When asked what was “special” about the Colorado prison system, prison reform advocate and esteemed poet Victoria Him spoke up. “We’re pretty special because one of my friends [former Colorado prisons chief Tom Clements] was murdered at his front door, and that was orchestrated by a member of one of the largest white supremacy gangs who was incarcerated in Colorado,” said Him.
“It’s a very exceptional situation that has the ability to be the epicenter of reform and change because of what goes on in Colorado prisons, of which [there are] some very good effects, and some very horrifying effects,” she continued. “[I work with] the sex offender column, which, differentiating from jail … is the after effects of what they do, which we’re now seeing in Colorado Springs all these sex offenders that are released. They don’t have jobs, they don’t have homes, they’re living at the rescue mission, and now they’re, in some ways, committing criminal acts within the rescue mission. So what’s not happening is what’s going to have to happen because many of my friends have been murdered in the hands of these deranged killers, and now, I know that’s why I advocate for what’s going to happen to these people because they’re creating violent crimes. And we have to do something, and destroying people in prison isn’t the solution.”
Despite the pitfalls of our nation’s correctional system, Russman commented on some of the advances being made. “There are some really innovative things that are happening in the field of criminal justice and corrections in particular … things like Colorado being the first state in the United States to effectively end solitary confinement,” she said. “When we started our work, there was an inmate who had spent 22 years in solitary confinement. Now, no one spends more than two months there.” Russman also spoke to the effort to improve education and vocational training behind prison walls.
The discussion clearly showed that while the Colorado prison system is far from perfect, there are many efforts to make positive change. This passion for improvement was highlighted by Russman and the other highly qualified people who spoke. Efforts like the Prison Project are only the start; action must be taken at the local, state, and national level to promote a more equitable and fair justice system to stop the revolving prison doors.