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"Only If..." Incarcerated Men Connect with Shared Humanity

I will tell you. I've not been at a loss for words in my career.

I was a radio news reporter, talk show host, and continue to be the person called on to stand up and take a microphone to do on the spot public speaking.

But today, I'm almost speechless.

When I emptied my pockets of keys, took off my earrings and left my ID at the front desk of the Bent County Correctional Facility I knew that I was headed down a long hallway full of echos and bright lights. I would be meeting with inmates assigned to the Frederick Douglass Project, a national program that actually was first implemented in Bent County. Yes, we were first, the pilot so to speak.

I'll start with the official mission statement from the website.

The Douglass Project seeks to bring prisoners and community members together for face-to-face conversations that highlight our shared humanity.

The idea and expectation is that those who are incarcerated will develop confidence, self-advocacy skills and experience and in turn the community members coming to take part will leave with empathy and inspiration. (

We are jaded as journalists so naturally I'm skeptical. Is this just another program that has potential to waste money for some great photo ops?

Talking with Vance, who is an incarcerated individual, I learn that he's a dad who wants to see his children and often feels frustrated at not being there for them. He admits he was in a gang, with all the gang life. He says time behind bars has mellowed him out. It's made him realize that he will need to earn people's trust. It's also given him time to think about what he would do differently if he would hit the rewind button on his life. In fact, he's writing a book right now titled "Only If.." He says if it never sells he's ok with that but he wants his children to know that he feels only if he would've lived his life differently and made better choices, he might be with them today.

Vance is polite and even apologizes for some harsh words he felt compelled to share during our time in small group session. He explains how he tells the younger inmates how much harder it would be on them in different facilities and that they might even be someone's "girlfriend." That was what he turned to me and apologized for before saying it.

One of the community members there to participate in the program for the day is the Reverend Leon Kelly who is the executive director of Open Door Youth Gang Alternatives in Denver. He says being incarcerated himself years ago gives him insight into what the guys are going through. He handed me a little book he gives out The Way to Happiness, A Common Sense Guide to Better Living. He explains it's simple, but many behind bars don't have those basics and they're necessary for survival.

You might wonder why some of the leaders in this project decided it needed to be done. I learned about this in sort of a backwards way. Earlier, in walking the facility during the tour I happened to be talking to a man who told me he is a journalist. Thinking he was there on a story, I was wrong. Dateline NBC producer Dan Slepian had a personal interest in the program because for the last two plus decades, his investigative journalism has helped free a man from prison who was serving life in prison. Here's the story.

Jon Adrian, or JJ, the name he prefers, now works for the Douglass Project as a Program Director and was in attendance at Thursday's meeting in Las Animas. He scribbles his contact info on a small yellow pad for me. I wasn't allowed to bring in a recording device, camera or phone. His story is fascinating and I'm looking forward to following up.

JJ tells me the program was first in Las Animas and has now expanded several other facilities across the country. He hopes that they'll be able to bring the program into as many as 20 facilities over the year.

At the end of our time together, Douglass Project Executive Director Marc Howard thanks us for being a part of it. He then asks Roberto, a man who has been incarcerated for 35 years to play the guitar and sing. Roberto tells us he wants to perform a song from the movie "I Can Only Imagine," a song by the same name. And to wrap it up, then, a man also incarcerated there finishes with a song that he says he wrote called "Woman Crush Wednesday" as he strums the guitar without a pick, using his ID he sings about a woman having a bad week, thinking she's not good enough, pretty enough but she just needs the confidence to crush a Wednesday. Isiah gains a standing ovation from the room.

The take away from the day. Inmates are people. They're people who are in the process of serving the time they were given for crimes they were convicted of in a court of law. Many are in the process of trying to better themselves to earn the respect of the community. The community would never have a chance to know them if it wasn't for this program. They will tell you, they messed up. They will tell you that they have earned the right to take part in this program through good behavior and they're grateful for it.

If you would like to know more about the Douglass Project, here's the link.


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