Jacob Rocha spends his days working inside a warehouse surrounded by heavy machinery and wood, tucked in the Rocky Mountains.
“Learned the machines, worked my way up, everything just kind of fell in place,” he said.
He works at Basic Industries, where he helps make wood stakes for a variety of industries. But how he got here is its own story.
“My initial charge was a burglary charge,” he said. “I was a low life, down at the bottom, drugs and stuff.”
Rocha’s crimes landed him in prison for years. He spent the last 11 months of his sentence working here as part of the Take TWO Program, a transitional work opportunity reentry program through the prison in Buena Vista, Colorado.
“Instead of going back to the old neighborhood, the old friends, I tried to do the right thing. So that was my mindset the last couple years,” he said.
The program focuses on transitioning criminals back into society, starting well before their time in prison is up.
“12 to 16 people have come through the program,” said Drew Patterson, owner of Basic Industries.
Patterson is one of many businesses in the area happy to hire inmates.
“I’ve always kind of been drawn toward helping people that haven’t really had a fair shake,” he said. “It gives them something to start a different story for themselves.”
While work for some is in this warehouse, the rest of life happens down the road, inside a building that’s part of the larger prison complex in town.
The inmates participating in the program have their own space, a place to sleep, a kitchen, a gym, and even bikes to take to work. All in a building separate from the rest.
“The idea of getting men and women behind the walls back to work is not necessarily a new idea, however, the importance I think that we are now placing on it perhaps is a new emphasis,” said Dean Williams, Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections.
“Everybody who works in this program works for a private employer, we don't pay them,” Williams explained.
This is one tool that Williams said the prison system is using to help bring down recidivism, the term used to describe the likelihood of a convicted criminal to return to prison.
“Are we happy with the results that we’re getting on this, almost 50% of the people come back to prison? Does anyone else think that's unacceptable? I do,” Williams said. “If we can reduce the return to prison rate, guess what, we make the community safer.”
And that’s why this program was created back in 2019. COVID-19 has slowed the pace of the program, but that’s something the department is working on moving forward. Eventually, they are looking at having up to 70 participants in the program at this location at one time.
“We win as the community when they’re prepared to get out of prison and they actually have money,” Williams said.
“I just think the recidivism rate, in my opinion, is because they don’t have opportunities like this,” Rocha said.
After Rocha finished his sentence, he walked out of custody with thousands of dollars in his pocket. He chose to keep working at Basic Industries, the same place that gave him a chance in the program.
“I needed this. It wasn’t something I wanted, I needed it to survive and give me that direction in life because I didn’t have a direction. I was gonna get out and whatever direction I walked out the door is the direction I was going,” Rocha said.
Now, he even lives in his very own home.
“Where could I see myself if it wasn’t for this program? I honestly have no idea. Honestly probably already rearrested if I'm being 100% honest with you,” he said.
“That’s the opportunity, I think, of the program is to really carry them through their last amount of time in prison through that transition to actually getting back on their feet,” Patterson said.