On Sunday, April 16, 2023, at 9:32 a.m. I was admitted to Colorado’s maximum-security prison in Cañon City. This was my second-time to be inside. Twenty-five years ago I was admitted to a medium-security facility in southern Minnesota. Fortunately in both cases, as in the game Monopoly, I was “just visiting.” In the first, as Metropolitan State University’s academic vice-president, I was presenting degrees to several inmates who had just completed our “at-large” bachelor’s program. To be sure, these prisoners were anything but at-large. This time around it was again a graduation ceremony for the eight or nine inmates who had just finished a five-month authentic-relating course given by the nonprofit Realness Project....
The program’s website describes its mission and vision as follows:
Mission: Transforming the culture of incarceration by empowering human connection. We inspire human growth and connection by delivering wildly effective programming to justice-involved people, including inmates, staff, parolees, and companies hiring the formerly incarcerated. Vision: A justice system built upon the foundation of human dignity.
The program really is “wildly effective.” By teaching inmates to be vulnerable and “real” with one another and to react to provocations in positive, non-violent ways, the Realness Project alumni have a recidivism rate of less than 5% versus the 80% of released prisoners nationally who re-offend and are re-incarcerated.
In my experience, shared with my wife, Cedar, who has volunteered in the program, the men at the ceremony, both the graduates and those still participating, were amazing. I was most impressed by the friendly smiles that greeted us from a mixture of Caucasians, Hispanics, a Muslim from Saudi Arabia, and a number of African Americans. As the graduates one by one gave short speeches including a professional-sounding and -looking song-and-dance rap duet about how the project had changed their lives, I and the other ten of us who had come to witness the ceremony clapped and shouted our appreciation. These were certainly not how I expected convicted armed robbers, rapists, and murderers to look or behave. After the ceremony, we shared an imported Colonel Sanders lunch with a yummy cheesecake and had the chance to spend one-on-one time with the graduates and other program participants. All shared how important our being there was for them. The individual who impressed me the most was a young black man named Rob. Handsome enough to be a model or movie star, he greeted us with a big smile on our arrival. Later, I found out that he had been one of three men on Colorado’s death row when the governor transmuted his sentence to life without parole. I also learned that he was one of Realness’s star trainees and had now become a program mentor. As a result of this 4-hour experience, I am signing up to be a Realness volunteer. It has changed my life too. You can learn more about the Project, volunteer, and/or contribute needed funds at www.realnessproject.org. Thanks, Realness, for making me more real.