Inmates from the Buena Vista Correctional Facility spent four weeks in September doing restoration and maintenance work in the wilderness on Independence Pass. Environment reporter Elizabeth Stewart-Severy spent a morning with the group and has details about Colorado’s inmate work program.
People drive from all over the state to see the natural splendor of Independence Pass in the fall, and this is a postcard Colorado day.
“Every day I come out here, I get lost in the view,” Armando Hernandez said. “I’m thankful for every day.”
While a group of men hammer away, building a bridge on the Lost Man Trail, Hernandez takes a moment to gaze at the surrounding peaks, blue skies and changing leaves. He’s an inmate at the Buena Vista Correctional Facility, and this is not a bad day in prison.
Hernandez is part of an 8-man work crew that has been planting trees, building bridges, and tearing out old fencing on Independence Pass. These offenders are nonviolent, close to being released, and have earned points for work release.
The Colorado Work Program offers free labor to non-profits, like the Independence Pass Foundation, and a chance for inmates to complete meaningful work as they prepare to transition back to society. Correctional Officer Virgil Houle oversees the inmates as they plant trees and build bridges, accompanied by a steady soundtrack of low beeps tracking reception on his radio.
“It gives them the opportunity to adjust to society again at another level,” Houle said.
The work is tough and the elevation leaves many short of breath, but this group works hard as a team.
“Honestly, I don’t know what we’d do without this program,” said Independence Pass Foundation director Karin Teague.
She says the inmates complete about 90 percent of the nonprofit’s work every summer.
"It’s a win for these young men who going to be released from prison soon and have a second chance at leading good, responsible lives,” Teague said. “And it’s manna from heaven for a non-profit like mine.”
Both Teague and Houle say the men get stronger and healthier daily from the hard work and high altitude air. And they also have a chance to think critically and problem solve, like when they devised sleds out of abandoned material to pull it out a beaten-up weather station from the Mountain Boy area, which sits above 12,000 feet.
“It is rewarding to see the change that they go through, and you just hope that it hangs with them through the rest of their lives,” Houle said. “That’s all you can do is hope.”
That hope feels real here, as the inmates pound away on a bridge and hikers stop to thank them. Inmate Hernandez said he feels productive after a day’s work up here.
“When I’m done working and we get to the facility, I can’t wait,” Hernandez said. “I’m thinking about the next day, about our next project.”
There are several different nonprofit work details for inmates from the Buena Vista Correctional Facility, and most of them involve work outdoors. Inmate James Apodaca says that, while he really enjoys planting trees, he wants to be working for the State Wildland Inmate Fire Team, or SWIFT, a firefighting crew.
“That would be the best one,” Apodaca said. “Because then I would feel like I was giving more back, you know what I mean? You should be able to give back some.”
The inmates wrapped up their work on the Pass last week, finishing what Teague says is the best part of her job. She’s come to know these men, and she, too, has hope in a second chance for them.
“I love working with these men. They really touch my heart in a way. They represent all races, creeds, colors, religions,” Teague said. “The entire prison system isn’t broken. There are rays of sunshine, and this is one of them.”