CROWLEY COUNTY, Colo. (CBS4) - Gov. Jared Polis and business leaders visited the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility this week in support of an education program that helps people who have recently been released from prison. Defy Colorado's goal is to provide a better chance at success in the workforce to ex-convicts.
"I was attracted to a nefarious lifestyle," said Hamilton Sullivan, a Defy Colorado graduate, at the facility. "This program is so great, I cannot stress how much, how incredible the opportunity is to be involved in something like this."
Sullivan told CBS4 he struggled with alcohol and substance abuse. He was involved in a crime where someone got hurt and he accepts why he is in prison. But he learned about Defy Colorado and saw the impact it had on others once he entered the Colorado Department of Corrections.
"Someone always has an angle, someone always has something that they're trying to get out of you," said Anthony Riley, another graduate of the program. "It gives you keen awareness."
He shared that an aggravated robbery and felony menacing conviction brought him to this prison a few years ago. He and other graduates try to pull from their experience to understand how they can translate skills to become legitimate members of the business world.
"Remember the lessons that were learned in it and apply it when applicable in life," Riley told CBS4. "It's applicable in everyday life."
He says the lessons range from importance of building a network, pitching a business, as well as comradery and brotherhood. Sullivan adds that specific accounting concepts along with techniques for resumes and cover letters help to prepare them for a career after they are released.
Graduates must come up with a for-profit business and pitch it to complete the program, regardless of whether they pursue their own business after they are released from prison. Defy Colorado is located in three facilities within the Colorado Department of Corrections and hopes to expand to other locations in 2020.
"I understand that this is now a learning experience for me," Sullivan said. "They've helped me understand my potential as a human and I never had that before."
The visit by business leaders and the governor gave them a chance to see the result of the eight-month course. They not only met the graduates -- called Entrepreneurs-In-Training (EIT) -- but also got to conduct mock interviews with them. Staff also organized an empathy exercise where the two groups realized they both have more in common. The EITs stood on one side and the leaders from outside were on the other end of the room. They met in the middle anytime they had a shared experience from dropping out of college, losing a loved one, or using hurtful words.
"For me, introspection is very important," Riley said. "There is a way for individuals to live a life other than the one they're living."
Each year 9,000 people are released from Colorado prisons, but 54 percent will return within three years, according to Defy Colorado. The organization says more widely securing employment will do a lot towards reversing that statistic.
The governor spoke to the group at the end to congratulate them on completing this program and use the variety of skills they've gained when they are released from prison.
"It's really great that you will be able to get this kind of experience here personally and professionally for success," the Polis said.
Sullivan is already an apprentice welder with three years of experience while he remains in the system. He plans to get a job first to save money toward his future goals. Thanks to the recent change in state law and the "Ban The Box" policy, he believes he will have an equal opportunity to compete for work when he is released.
"People can change," Sullivan said. "I really want to start a business when I get out."
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