“Money can’t buy happiness … but it sure can put a Hell of a down payment on it.”

As soon as I heard those words leave the mouth of Denzel Washington, I adopted them as a universal truth. In almost every case where I’ve known someone to come across a large amount of money—whether it be due to a streak at the blackjack table or getting some form of inheritance—the “happiness” they experienced was fleeting, at best. Sure, the stresses that came from being broke had disappeared because of their new-found wealth, but every other element of life that hits us with a giant shit-hammer remained.

I believe that the recent piece of legislation introduced by state lawmakers that would give felons $3,000 upon their release epitomizes this “Hell of a down payment with potential side effects” perfectly.

The bill, SB204-012, would create a pilot program in the Colorado Department of Corrections that would give $3,000 to participants in helping with basic living expenses such as “housing, food, health care, hygiene products, clothes, financial obligations related to [their] legal proceedings, transportation, and technology.” Participants in the program must have recently been released from incarceration following a felony conviction and they would also have to be enrolled in a workforce service or training program.

I think this bill is a great first step … but only that.

Yes, it will help alleviate the mental burdens that can come from when you don’t know where you’re going to find your next meal. And yes, it will provide a great platform of financial stability from which to build. But as we all know, any true criminal reform is going to need a multitude of solutions, not just a single cure-all.

To find out what else an inmate is going to need in order to stay out of the revolving-door prison system found in America, I spoke to ex-convict Bobby Bueno.

For three-and-a-half years, Bueno found himself bouncing around the criminal justice system before finally being placed in Sterling Correctional Facility on charges of identity theft, motor vehicle theft, burglaries, an evading charge, and a DF4 drug charge. Since having been released in December 2022, he has been steadily employed, completed all of his classes, and is considered a model parolee by his parole officer. By all metrics, thus far he has been a success story.

When I asked him what was one of the key contributors to his success, he made it clear that his mental status was paramount. “When I was down with that much time, you have enough time to think about what you’ve gotta do. I think that’s what really helped me is, I plan [for] WHEN shit happens, not IF shit happens. [Like] the hurdles of getting a job, or of dealing with the stigma [that comes from] all the different things.”

Even when questioned if he supported the $3,000 program, his answer reiterated the importance of the need for every inmate to have a plan as he did, or all the money in the world isn’t going to guarantee success. “The money of course helps because everybody in America is struggling for money right now—not just for people getting out of prison. If they were guaranteed things like having a little bit of money in their pocket, having a guaranteed job, having a guaranteed place to live, it just calms the mind a lot more.”

He continued, “[But] you couldn’t just give it to anybody because there are people that are institutionalized, people that don’t give a fuck. And they call it doing life on an installment plan where people go in for a couple years, they come out, they do good for three or four [more], and then they go back for another eight years. The biggest thing is just having the plan, having an idea of what you’re in for, and wanting to change.”

Sadly, I would come to find out that helping inmates with having a transition plan is one of the things completely absent from our state’s rehabilitation programs. Says Bueno, “They don’t help you transition. When you go from jail to prison, you don’t have any kind of knowledge on transitioning from the jail to prison. When you go from prison to the halfway house, you don’t have any idea of how that transition is gonna work, or if you don’t go to the halfway house and you go from prison straight to the streets, you don’t have the [necessary] skills.”

“You go straight from living in this institutional world where you’re told what to do, what to eat, what to wear, then now you have all these freedoms and some people don’t realize that there are things they need to do [on the outside]. Little things like doing laundry, making sure they have food, because you’re catered to all of that in prison—you’re guaranteed your meals, you’re guaranteed your laundry to be washed.”

But Bueno makes it clear that learning all of these skills is predicated on the inmate having the desire to make a change and fully utilizing the available resources offered by their parole officer. In fact, to him, a parole officer should be a “babysitter, pretty much. At the end of the day, that’s all a parole officer should be. If you’re doing what you need to be doing, that’s all parole really is.”

He also makes it clear that though POs should have a more limited role, the assistance they offer should be utilized en masse by every struggling parolee. “If you don’t know how to make a resume, or if you don’t know how to balance money—which a lot of people don’t, because it’s not ever taught to you in school—having someone to help you can be invaluable. Your parole officer should be able to help you get the resources to do those kinds of things.”

According to Bueno, after it’s all said and done, there’s one other key to success that every inmate on their way out needs: a close-knit group of friends and family. “I’m blessed because I have a support system. I have family and close friends that I can rely on that have helped me through this. I know that if I need help with a couple of bucks or a ride or something like that, there are people I can call.”

It seems the state of Colorado has learned that providing solid ground for a newly-released prisoner to find their footing is a good idea, but there is more work to be done. I think Bueno is on the right track. I think educating inmates about the resources available to them via their POs, all while helping them learn important life skills, can only increase their chances of success on the outside.

And given that Colorado has the tenth-highest recidivism rate in the nation, these inmates need all the help they can get.