A conversation with Jason Lengerich, the warden of Buena Vista Correctional Complex, hosted by the League of Women Voters, drew nearly four dozen people Monday afternoon.
The question and answer period focused on some of the services offered to the 1,234 offenders in the complex, including its new Take TWO program, as well as the ever-present issue of staffing that the prison faces.
Lengerich, a native of Salida, started his career at BVCC in the prison’s boot camp program. That program was decommissioned 10 years ago, but the building that was once used for the program is now seeing new use as a transitional work center where non-violent offenders nearing their release date can prepare to re-enter society.
“The premise behind it is, 95 to 97 percent of these offenders are going to be released. So what do we do with them? Our goal as an organization has moved in how we protect the public,” he said.
“Back in the day, we used to protect the public by keeping them behind the fences. We’d keep them away from the public. We became very good at that, and we still are very good at that,” Lengerich noted. “However, what I think has been great is seeing the evolution of corrections as a whole is that our mission is still protecting the public, we’re just doing it in a different way now.
“Now our focus is on what are we doing with these offenders while they are incarcerated so that if 95 to 97 percent of them are going to be released back into the community, how are we going to make them a better neighbor?”
Lengerich said that Take TWO (an acronym for Transitional Work Opportunity) is currently partnering with DSI Structures, ACA Products, Jan’s Restaurant, Valvoline and Town and Country automotive, providing them with employees who are paid and treated like any other.
The first day the offenders started working in the community was Oct. 29. They’re dropped off and picked up by BVCC staff, and wear electronic monitors throughout the day.
They’re paid a prevailing wage that is deposited on payday into an account, allowing them to build up funds to use when they’re released, he said.
Lengerich said that Jan’s was looking to hire two more offenders through the program, and that the prison was in discussions with Swisher Automotive and the Jade Garden Chinese restaurant about participating in the program.
“I started my career at the boot camp, and it’s kind of interesting to see the boot camp building being utilized for its intended purpose, which is to prepare offenders for re-entry,” he said. “It’s being done differently than it was when it was a boot camp, but it’s being utilized for its intended purpose.”
Lengerich said he has been glad to see the corrections system in Colorado move toward a more rehabilitative approach.
“I’ve been doing this close to 25 years, and I’ve seen the evolution of the tough-on-crime piece. I’m conservative in thought process, however, I’ve seen how things were then, where we got very good at keeping this individual locked up behind these bars and in this cell. I’ve seen it to where we’re providing better opportunities,” he said. “I’m really proud of our organization. I think we’re really good at that and I think we’re going to see some really good things.”
Lengerich mentioned group therapy, requirements that offenders get their GED, vocational classes, support groups for transgender offenders as ways the prison is working to improve prisoners’ changes at life on the outside.
The prison also offers a program that trains offenders to help other offenders going through mental health crises and offers some vocational training, like welding or auto-painting, through virtual reality, he said.
“I would like to see more drug and alcohol classes. I would also like to see some resilience training, which adds to coping mechanisms for the offenders, because that seems to be the biggest issue we run into.
“You provide them all these things and they’re ready to go, and they fall back into something really easy. Some of them are within a couple weeks of release, and they just fall back into those old habits because they don’t have any other coping mechanism,” he said.
He’d also like to see a puppy-raising program return to the small minimum-security facility in the complex, and would like to see it expand from simply raising dogs to sell.
“I’d like to see a little bit different take on the program. Instead of being just a canine program to sell, I’d like to see us develop some service dogs that we could give back to the community,” Lengerich said.
The audience also prompted discussion of staffing issues at the prison.
“We’re not the only facility struggling and we’re not the only state that’s struggling,” Lengerich said.
However, thanks to raises for correctional officers approved last year, as well as opening the prison up to out-of-state hiring has ameliorated the issue somewhat, he said.
“Colorado’s doing a lot better than we were this last winter,” he said. “We’re still looking at about 18 officer vacancies right now. It was at almost 60.”
The warden said that “Buena Vista was probably one of the three in the state that’s having the hardest time getting staff. I think we’re probably not in that top three any more.”
While “I can’t say there’s one thing keeping people from staying up here,” Lengerich said, “the cost of living is quite high.”
Of the prison’s 400-person staff, Lengerich has employees who commute daily from as far away as Colorado Springs, the San Luis Valley, and even Denver. Officers receive a monthly $300 stipend for housing, but “a lot of them utilize that for gas money,” he said.
He said that the prison would be working with the Chaffee County Economic Development Corporation on a project to bring in single-family employee housing with the aim of allowing employees at the complex to actually move their families to the Buena Vista area.
“There’s a contractor we’re working with right now to get staff housing on grounds,” Lengerich said. “We’d like to build some 2- to 3-bedroom houses there.”