The long road back
Hilltop House helps offenders transition back into the community

Mike Uhland sits in front of his new apartment. He just moved out of Hilltop’s residential program. “It’s
weird for me, just because I’ve never been sober,” Uhland says. “I’m just trying to adjust to living a more
socially acceptable lifestyle, I guess. It’s kind of scary.”/Photo by Ole Bye.

From its elevated position just west of the Animas River, Hilltop House affords a perfect view of the city of Durango. It is into this community that about 40 Hilltop clients bike or walk daily. They go to jobs, to therapy, sometimes to coffee shops or to laundromats. On the street, it is far from obvious that they are convicts working their way out of the correctional system, people trying to regain a place in society.

As a part of the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice, Hilltop House plays the important role of halfway house, providing a buffer between prison and the street. Hilltop Director John Schmier elaborates, saying, "Community corrections was started to help offenders transition back into the community by building a savings account and helping them pay their restitution, court costs, fines but also to provide them with a place where they can continue their treatment."

According to Schmier, the Hilltop program is effective. "I would say were in the mid-80th percentile of successful completions", he says.

A number of clients agree, noting that the program helped them get back on their feet and stay straight. "I hate to say it, but, yeah, it has (helped)", says client Mike Uhland."Its hard, but it's not as hard as the life I was living before".

But the road to re-assimilation is a long one, and former convicts often encounter frustration, mistrust and alienation.

Hilltop resident Jed Bailey pauses during his work as a roofer in Durango. “If it
did happen to come up in the future,” he says of his time at Hilltop, “(I) hope that
things would be looked at through perceptive eyes.”/Photo by Ole Bye.

A look inside Hilltop House

The Hilltop program began in the early 1980s, and in the early years, it shuffled locations between several downtown houses. Funding was sporadic, says Schmier. "The budget was so small that when they ran out of money, the facility would just close". By 1985, funding had solidified, and the program built its own facility on Avenida del Sol.

Direct-sentence offenders (who avoid prison by being sentenced directly to Hilltop by a judge) as well as inmates from local prisons always have been part of the program. In 1997, Hilltop also began accepting inmates from the Colorado State Department of Corrections and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Funding for Hilltop comes from all of these sources; the money follows the offenders.

Clients of Hilltop participate in a tightly structured program meant to reintroduce them to everyday life. To participate in the program, clients must work full time but may substitute hours with school. Merit is earned in a classification system, and clients work toward nonresidential status, and eventually, release.

Schedules are precisely regimented, and clients must get passes to leave the facility for purposes other than work or treatment. Hilltop employees must be able to reach a given client within two hours or the client is placed on escaped status. Breathalyzer tests are a part of daily life at Hilltop, and residential clients must be in-house for a minimum of eight hours a day.

"I pretty much supervise their whole life for the time they're with us", says Case Manager Nick Beveridge.

When an individual enters the program, he or she is given 10 business days to find employment. "Usually, we have so many people calling us looking for people to work, that we have a two-week limit", says Schmier. "If you can't find a job in 10 days, we have to start wondering if you're employable...In the nine years I've been here, I've seen one client go back to prison because he couldn't find a job."

It's not difficult for Hilltop clients to find at least some kind of work, in part because employers know what to expect. "One thing employers like about us is the clients will show up, theyre going to show up sober, and they're going to show up with their lunch", Schmier says. Some employers are wary of liaison with Hilltop, though, because of procedural requirements imposed by the state, as well as conflicts with the tight schedules imposed by Hilltop.

Counselor Peg Christian leads a discussion during the victim awareness class she teaches at Hilltop./Photo by Ole Bye

The day to day

By outward appearances, the life of a Hilltop client looks pretty ordinary. The difference is that personal choice has been eliminated. Client Jed Bailey comments, "A lot of times I may have called in and said, 'Hey, I'm just not coming in today'. But at Hilltop you cant do that. No matter what, you gotta go to work."

Although clients must work at least 35 hours a week, most work more. Mike Uhland substitutes some of his work hours with classes at Pueblo Community Colleges Durango extension. Having just moved out of Hilltop House to his own apartment, he worries about making ends meet: "I'm going to have to get a second job to swing it", he says. "Thirty hours a week isnt going to cut it."

Living expenses can be high, but a second primary financial obligation of Hilltop clients is paying off their restitution. "That's the biggest thing that is on my plate," says client Serenity Leonard.

When they're not at work, clients can, depending on their status, get social passes, allowing them to spend time doing other things, like going to the coffee shop or the rec center. Where clients can go is limited by the need to contact them within two hours. "One of the main things that bothers me is you can't really go hiking, you can't go fishing, you can't do anything where there isn't a phone that they can get a hold of you," Uhland says.

Mike Uhland shoots pool at the Durango Rec Center. The center is the only venue in town where Hilltop clients can shoot pool because it is alcoholfree.


Adapting to the regimen of the Hilltop program is the first challenge for clients; the next is confronting the stigma of being a convict. "It was hard at first," Leonard says. "I kept my head down. I didnt really go out and do things. But that went away", she says, "as full-time work forced me to be back in the public eye." Occasionally, some clients run into employers who shy away from hiring them based on their past. Bailey advises, "You have to look past a lot of what other people think and feel, and build some sort of level of trust with the community again." Although, he says for the most part, Durango has been receptive and helpful.

On top of everything else, Leonard experienced difficulty as one of only four women living in-residence at Hilltop House. "A lot of the guys were just coming directly out of prison", she says. "It was really hard. There were a lot of incidents where the guys would make comments to me". Now that she's in the nonresidential program, with an apartment of her own, Leonard feels a different kind of pressure. "I have my freedom, but I don't", she says."I dont live (at Hilltop), but I have to follow their rules. I still have to call, and I still have to let them know what I'm doing, and I still have a curfew."

Leonard, Uhland and Bailey are all natives of Durango and have the advantage of knowing the turf. Clients who offended here but are not natives often times have no connections in the community. Peg Christian, who leads a victim awareness class at Hilltop, points out, "These folks are really isolated from the community. They go and work, but they dont know too many people. Re-assimilation could be enhanced", she says, "by getting people together in informal settings so they feel more connected the community."

"Because that's where you prevent crime, is when people are connected because they dont want to hurt people they care for."

The paramount challenge inherent in the Hilltop program is the underlying foundation of strict personal responsibility. Self-restraint is important, says Uhland, and when discipline gets frustrating, the key is "just kind of biting your tongue." Uhland, who has been out on probation before, says he has a hard time leaving the structure of the Hilltop program: "I did all right for a while, but then I got bored. I wasn't busy. I started hanging out where I used to, and it was only a matter of time before I was just as bad off as I ever was."

Many in the program have a hard time accepting its authority. "They kind of treat you like a little kid, but then I try to look at it like I've only demonstrated me being a little kid to them, so how else would they treat me?" Uhland says. "It is hard to always own up to that, you know."

The future

One thing that seems to be on the minds of Hilltop clients is what they'll do when they finish the program. Some will stay in the community. Jed Bailey is thinking about starting his own business. "This will always be my home", he says, noting that

Serenity Leonard. Of the Hilltop program, she says, “You either sink or you
swim. I chose to swim.”

first, he is going to take a long camping trip. Mike Uhland doesn't think he can be a part of Durango anymore, saying, "I kind of feel like that's a cop out, that if I'm going to be sober, I should be able to do it here, as well. But I can't help but think it's going to be easier elsewhere." He adds, "Ultimately, Id like to be a Ducati mechanic."

Serenity Leonard isn't sure if she'll still call Durango home, but in the meantime, she has become involved in the La Plata Youth program and visits classrooms to tell about her experiences in the correctional system. "It's really rewarding", she says, "we give back to the kids, and try to teach them through our mistakes."

When asked about the effectiveness of the program, these clients agree that you get out of it what you put in. "You either sink or you swim. I chose to swim", Leonard says.

Bailey is pragmatic in his attitude, saying, "I messed up, and I gotta do what I gotta do."

This feeling of accomplishment is equally important for Hilltop employees, says case manager Kurt Wood. "When you have somebody who is really open to the change in their life and you walk hand-in-hand with them through the program, and you support their growth, and you see them leave through the front door without handcuffs on, its a really good feeling", he says. "Thats what kind of recharges my batteries to continue to do this."

Still with three years to go in the Hilltop program, Leonard is looking forward to the future. "I'm such a different person than the person I used to be, so I'm ready to make changes in my life."






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