Four years ago, William Langley woke up and decided that 31 years in the country’s legal system and 22 total years of his life incarcerated was enough.
Six years ago, a string of sleepless nights turned into an idea for Deb Baldwin. She took a scrutinizing look at restorative justice programs throughout the United States, and the national recidivism (criminal relapse) rates, and decided to do something no one had ever done before in Eagle County. With a background in victim services, she felt there wasn’t a forum that considered the victim as well as the offender.
“In victim services, it’s a very reactive job. You respond after somebody has already been harmed, the event has already occurred,” Baldwin said.
She wanted a victim-focused, offender-based restorative justice program that would bring awareness to offenders about who has been harmed by their actions and choices, and an understanding of the extent of that harm and what needs to be done to repair the damage. This idea marked the inception of Survive!, a nonprofit organization whose primary focus is restorative justice in the Eagle County jail.
“This is an opportunity to be proactive. You can influence someone to change their behaviors, and to not create another victim at their hand,” Baldwin said. Survive! provides a myriad of other services such as substance use/abuse awareness and prevention for Eagle County youth, restorative justice for high-risk juveniles outside of the jail, mediation, family intervention services, re-entry and recovery support and transition.
SUrviving on the outside
An integral part of the restorative justice program is the classes offered to inmates. Each session consists of 15 interactive classes spanning five weeks, amounting to a total of 50 hours. Participation in the course is entirely voluntary, but inmates must make a commitment to attend each class in the session if they do choose to participate. In between classes, they are given assignments focusing on core behavior patterns, dismantling negative core beliefs and behavior patterns, and replacing them with positive and successful ones with the ultimate goal of shifting their perceptions. Of the 65 inmates housed in the Eagle County jail, 30 to 40 of them attend the tri-weekly class. It is so popular that many of the inmates choose to repeat the class voluntarily. Langley is among them.
Langley was arrested for the first time when he was nine years old. For the last three decades, he has been in and out of jails and prisons for a list of offenses that range from DUIs to assault to theft. He has now spent exactly half of his life inside of a cell.
“I learned how to survive inside, but I never learned how to survive outside. I took every class the Department of Corrections told me to take, and then some, but I always wound up back in jail. When I went into the system, it wasn’t about helping to restore people in any way; it was about punishment,” he said. “At one point, I realized I had no fear of their punishment, so why wouldn’t I go back? It’s easier than trying to figure out a new way to live,”
But in 2010, when William received yet another four-year sentence, he was determined it was going to be the final time he wasted his life behind bars. It was then that his path crossed with Baldwin’s.
“When I started this program at the beginning of my sentence, Deb said she would help me. It was the first time in 22 years that anyone asked me how I felt. It wasn’t until I went through this class, that I saw that prison just wasn’t hurting me, it was hurting everybody I cared about. Deb told me if I could be as honest and truthful as possible, my life would change. She was right. I’ve taken my past and turned it into something positive that I can use to help somebody else. Today, I have hope,” said Langley.
Creating new community members
Langley repeated the class four times while serving his sentence. He couldn’t get enough. He was released four months ago, and is currently a sober member of the community who volunteers his time to Survive! events where he hopes to make an impact by sharing his story. But if Langley’s personal account isn’t convincing of the program’s success, maybe this is: A three-year study was conducted on repeat offenses of released inmates who had been through the Survive! program while in jail. The recidivism rate was found to be 10 percent, compared to a national rate of 67.8 percent for the same three-year period.
Suvive!’s latest endeavor is a temporary living facility that will serve a vital role in the re-entry program. The property for this facility is currently under contract in Gypsum.
“People get released from jail with the same bags they had when they walked in, the same phone contacts they had, and they’re almost set up for failure,” said the program’s assistant director Devin Effinger. “They don’t have any of the tools, any of the guidance, any of the support they need to make a positive change in their lives.”
Langley can relate, remembering a time that he was released in Glenwood Springs.
“I had $100 in my pocket and nowhere to go. I didn’t know what to do, I had no one to turn to. I went to a park, lit a fire in a trashcan, and slept on a park bench in the middle of a snowstorm. I ended up spending the money on booze, and I went back to prison.”
This living facility will create an environment where former offenders will be accountable for their actions as they transition back into society and acquire the basic skills necessary to tackle this transition.
To be eligible for temporary housing, inmates must successfully graduate from at least one five-week class, be actively completing assignments and undergo an external interview process. The nonprofit organization works to create a safety plan with inmates. They conduct mock job interviews, and help them find employment, housing, counseling and rehabilitation services.
“It’s not like we’re bringing criminals into our community; we’re taking these very same people that were already there and giving them tools for successful re-entry. Instead of going back to what they know and who they were, we’re giving them the opportunity to recreate themselves as a safe and stable person,” Effinger said.
Baldwin also believes that the program results in a number of victims that will never be created.
“That’s our motivation,” she said.