Audrey Tennyson was filling out paperwork at the front desk of Aurora’s Second Chance Center when he looked up and spotted a familiar face. A flood of relief washed over him.
“Taj, is that you?” Tennyson recalled yelling into the hall before pulling the 6-foot-5 man in for a bear hug. It was the first time Tennyson had run into a friend since being released three days prior from the Crowley Correctional Facility, a privately-run state prison where he had been incarcerated for 14 years.
The two men hadn’t seen each other in almost five years. They used to play basketball together and Tennyson would watch Tajuddin “Taj” Ashaheed train with others in jiu jitsu. Now, Ashaheed, who was released from prison in 2015 and is now a care manager at SCC, is helping Tennyson plan his life after incarceration.
The reentry nonprofit, which launched in 2012, has supported thousands of people leaving prison by helping them find housing, employment and stability. Though the nonprofit strives to meet people’s basic needs — which significantly lessens the likelihood that someone lands back behind bars for committing new crimes — its mission goes further than that: They are building the support systems necessary for their people to thrive.
“People don’t need to be on life support for the rest of their lives,” said Hassan A. Latif, founder and executive director of SCC. “People just need some help to get started. They need encouragement, and they need opportunities. For most folks, that’s enough for them to take it to the next level.”
Denver expansion — with a housing-first approach
At the beginning of May, the nonprofit expanded its reach by opening a new center in downtown Denver — with financial support from the city — to provide reentry services for people coming out of the city and county jails. Like at the Aurora center, it provides free clothes, food and hygiene products, as well as support finding housing and employment.
“We want to try to do the best that we can to provide the basic stuff,” said Khalil Halim, director of care management at SCC. “So, if a guy comes in and he’s homeless or he’s out on the street, well, before we want to talk to him about trying to get a job or all that, we got to deal with the homelessness. Then we can start getting at what’s really going on.”
Lisa Calderon, former mayoral candidate and chief of staff for Denver City Council member Candi CdeBaca, is excited to see SCC moving into the role. She helped launch Denver’s one-stop-shop reentry model in 2007 and was the executive director until 2017. For the past four years, the organization Servicios de la Raza has been providing reentry services in Denver with financial support from the city.
“I’m very thrilled to look at this next iteration of reentry in Denver, that it is really moving forward that vision that we had over a decade ago to institutionalize the process of reentry from the criminal legal system just like we have institutionalized arrest, prosecution and incarceration,” said Calderon.
Jessica Patterson, who oversees programming at the city and county jails for the Denver Sheriff Department, said the goal is to get as many incarcerated people connected with SCC as possible before they are released.
“We try and get them a plan where we can, preferably before (they) actually release, which is not always what we are able to do,” Patterson said. “But we provide (them) with anything else we can as follow up to get connected.”
She said one of their biggest requests from those incarcerated at the jail is help finding housing.
“I think that shouldn’t be any secret to anybody who knows what the cost of living is in Denver,” Patterson said. “Unfortunately, we do have a large unhoused population and they do make their way into our care pretty regularly.”
Between April 2020 and April 2021, an average 35% of Denver’s jail population consisted of people experiencing homelessness, according to the state’s jail population dashboard. In April 2020, there were 1,748 people incarcerated in Denver’s two jails, with 36% of the population — or 629 people — being unhoused.
Calderon, with Denver City Council, said she’s excited for SCC to hit the ground running when it comes to housing, as she says it’s a key component of reducing recidivism rates.
“I think one of the things that they are bringing that we’ve never had before in Denver, as part of our reentry system, is this housing component,” Calderon said. “It’s a tremendous asset what they’re bringing, considering that Denver is the second most gentrifying city in the nation and that stability in reentry and recidivism reduction is often rooted in housing.”
The organization has a handful of master leases for properties in Aurora for temporary housing. It is also in the process of developing a 135-unit apartment building in Denver that consists of 55 permanent supportive housing units and 80 workforce housing units.
Even if they had 10 times as many units, Latif said it wouldn’t even be close to sufficient. “Before the pandemic, there were 150 people released (from prison) every month who were homeless,” he said.
Their key to success? Fulfillment.
Latif launched SCC in 2012 out of the back of his 2002 bright red Jaguar. He would drive around Aurora looking for people in the standard I-just-got-out-of prison uniform: a blue polo shirt and khaki pants. “They stuck out like sore thumbs,” he said.
A large majority of those who work at Second Chance Center have spent time in prison — some for a significant portion of their lives. In 2013, after he received his second grant, Latif hired two of his friends: Sean Taylor and Adam Abdullah. Collectively, they had 75 years of incarceration time.
“We really tried to keep ourselves really tight, knowing that people were waiting on the sidelines to lob our heads off if we made any kind of mistake,” he said.
Today, the organization has 37 employees and has helped more than 7,000 people transition from incarceration back into society. Prior to launching SCC, Latif worked for another reentry organization. He noticed gaps in their services, but didn’t have the confidence to suggest changes to his boss.
“I was just grateful that someone even gave me a job just a couple years out of prison,” Latif said. “Successes are things that people check off boxes, and I saw that happening. The fulfillment — that’s what was missing.”
He said that’s now one of Second Chance’s main focuses.
“It’s not something you can tell somebody, like this is what you need to be fulfilled. The best you can hope for is that people allow you close enough into their lives that you can help them navigate whatever terrain they are facing.”
For the last seven years, less than 10% of the people who have walked through the doors at Second Chance Center have gone back to prison.
The organization is a community partner for the state program Work and Gain Education & Employment Skills program, which helps coordinate services for people still under the supervision of Colorado Department of Corrections or within their first year of being released. For those participants, Latif said the recidivism rate is under 5%.
“If we said that off the top, people would find that hard to believe,” Latif said. “Because nationally, it’s about 40% and in Colorado it’s closer to 50%.”
He said the center’s low recidivism rate is because that’s their expectation.
“We think people live up to or down to the expectations of others,” he said. “My mother used to say to me, ‘N****, you ain’t worth a quarter.’ So nobody should’ve been surprised when I acted like 20 cents.”
“Everybody that comes here, we expect them to succeed, and we do all we can to help them do it,” he said. “And sometimes that might be the first time in years or ever that people are embraced with that kind of expectation.”
A mindset shift
A few years ago, while testifying on a bill at the state Legislature, a lawmaker asked Latif what the “secret sauce” was at SCC that made them so good at what they do.
“I told them, which is what I still believe, that the whole provider-recipient power dynamic, we reject that here,” he said. “We understand that we are the stewards of resources but we never make somebody come to us hat in hand to be helped. That’s undignified and we’re not about that.”
He said that although the center’s programs and services have evolved over the last decade, its philosophy has remained the same.
“We’ve been telling our folks for years, that the better they do, the better we’re going to be able to do,” he said. “And it really resonates with this particular population we serve because most of them, most of us, have felt ‘apart from’ as opposed to a ‘part of’ for most of our lives.”
Though the center’s approach produces positive results, Latif said the process is far from easy.
“We’re asking people to dig through some very dark, very uncomfortable things and places,” he said. “It’s messy but our belief is that you got to dig through that stuff to stand a chance of getting past it. And we’re committed to being there for that journey with folks. We’re not going to just start the process and leave somebody off.”
‘The new me’
A few days after Tennyson got released from prison, he got a pass to leave his halfway house to go to the bank. He picked the farthest one that was still located in Aurora so he could explore. But the bank was located on an Air Force base and he wasn’t allowed in.
He tried to go to a different one, but he had a hard time navigating the bus system. It was only his second day using a smartphone and he didn’t know how to navigate yet using Google Maps.
“Once it dawned on me that I forgot to get on my transfer, I was already too late. It was already past my schedule,” he recalled. “When I got there, it was the time that I was supposed to be leaving there. It was a horrible feeling.”
He didn’t know what repercussions he would face when he got back to his halfway house.
“I knew that I was going to be in trouble. I didn’t know if I was going to get back and be on suspension and can’t go on passes, or be under review,” he said. “I didn’t know what the process was because they just throw you in the water and tell you to swim.”
“The old me probably would have said, ‘Well, it’s already too late now.’ And I probably would have just … I don’t know,” Tennyson said. “I would have done things different. But the new me is a man of faith.”
That mindset shift is what Ashaheed calls “change talk.” When he hears it while talking with clients, his ears perk up.
“We try to use different techniques to try to get a person to that point, and it’s not always easy,” he said. “Most people will come to us, they want help, they don’t want to go back to prison. But every now and then you get that person who doesn’t even know what they want and they don’t realize they’re still on that path of sort of cycling back.”
The care managers rely heavily on Latif’s book “Never Going Back: 7 Steps to Staying Out of Prison.”
“We use a lot of things that Hassan has written in his book, in the sense of, like, trust that someone has done what we’re proposing,” Ashaheed said. “Trust that whatever challenges that are in front of you, someone has gone through those challenges, and more than likely it’s the care manager sitting across from you.”
Ashaheed’s turning point happened in 1994 when he took a victim’s impact awareness course while in prison.
“They presented these different scenarios, like what would happen to a person when they get their car stolen. What happens to a person, if they get mugged or whatever,” he recalled. “And it was the first time that I had ever considered that something happens to a person after they’ve been robbed. I was in prison for robbery and I never gave a thought about what did the person go through that I robbed?
When Ashaheed first started working at SCC, he remembers being shocked when Latif referred to the work they do as “crime fighting.”
“To me, crime fighters are either the superheroes and the Batmans of the world, or the police, and we ain’t trying to be any of those because we’ve been on the other side of the fence,” Ashaheed said. “When, if you really think about it, it’s very true.”
“If you take care of people’s needs, then you also take away the chances they have to do something criminal to fulfill those needs,” he said.
‘I got you’
When Halim was discharged from the military when he was 19, he joined the gang he had been trying to get away from.
“I was fed up pretty much with the world,” he said. “What ended up happening was me saying, ‘Well, no need to escape it. I’m done. I will just indulge in it myself. Which led to, unfortunately, a racketeering case, a 20-year sentence and a lot of us got locked up.”
While in jail, his daughter died. Then, he was moved into solitary confinement.
“I didn’t do anything to go to the hole,” he said. “So, I just had to ask myself, ‘How did I find myself right here?’ At that point I wanted to change everything. So I did that and I dedicated myself to getting into whatever program that would help me do that.”
Now, he’s helping others do the same.
He recently worked with a man who was released from state prison after 30 years of incarceration. The center was able to find him housing and helped him line up three job interviews. But the client didn’t show up to two of them. For the third, he showed up but never went inside.
“And we were like, OK, something’s going on,” Halim said. “So I told him to come in, and what came out was that it wasn’t that he didn’t want to work, he didn’t know how to work. He had been in prison 30 years prior to that and had never had a job.”
“He wasn’t even able to communicate it, and it was just in that conversation where I was just like, ‘You’re shell shocked. You’re scared.’ And to say that, you know, ‘I’m scared,’ that’s hard for our guys.”
Now, he works as a front desk receptionist at Second Chance Center. “Of course, we can’t do that with everybody,” Halim said. “But what it is is being able to relate and say, ‘Oh, I get it. I get what’s going on.”
Halim said that’s the fundamental difference between Second Chance and other reentry providers. Their relationship doesn’t drop off as soon as their clients check all the boxes.
“For a lot of people, it’s easier to go back to jail, because of all the things that bear down on you when you come back to society,” he said. “And we don’t want that.”
Halim said they are good at what they do because they are able to recognize when a person is at a turning point in a way someone that’s never been incarcerated would likely overlook.
“There was a guy that came in, I remember he came in and one of the case managers stopped me and said, ‘Hey, talk to this guy.’ So I was talking to him and he was really frustrated because when he was here before he was in line to get a (commercial drivers license) and something happened. He said it wasn’t his fault, but his parole officer sent him back.”
The client was shuffling around a stack of paper with a desperate look in his eye.
“I don’t know what conversation he was having or could have been having with himself, but I guess he thought he wasn’t going to be able to do it,” Halim said. “And I just looked him in the eye and I saw that in his mind, if this didn’t work, he was going to commit some crimes.”
“I stopped him and I told him, ‘Listen, don’t worry about it. We will take care of it. We will take care of you.’ And he just looked at me and started crying. A grown man. And I said, ‘I know where you at, and I got you.’”
The next morning, the client came in first thing in the morning and got his paperwork sorted out.
“I’m expecting to see him pulling up here in the truck sooner or later,” Halim said, brushing away tears. “That’s what these guys need,” he added. “They need to be seen.”
Restoring a shared sense of humanity
For Latif, there are parts of his past that are painful to think about.
“I could even do things that now are abhorrent to me, that sicken me to even think about it,” he said. “And I know if I can come from there and be at this place, I know anybody can do that, because I wasn’t in good shape.”
Latif has had a lot of sleepless, anxious nights in the past nine years trying to ensure the organization continues to support as many people as possible.
“I mean, my beard is entirely white and when I started this, I had a little black goatee,” he said with a chuckle. “There’s a lot of people whose livelihoods and families depend on us.”
“We are pleased with our efforts and thankful for these opportunities, but we recognize we are just a spot on the sheet as far as things being done differently,” he added. “There needs to be 10,000 entities like ours, doing better than we doing.”
When he reflects on his organization’s work, he thinks back to a time in 2016 when a church group came to their building to do community service. “We just told our folks, look we got some people coming from Highlands Ranch, if you see someone you don’t recognize, say hello,” he recalled.
As he was firing up some grills around lunch time to cook hot dogs and hamburgers, he looked around in awe.
“Everywhere I looked, and everywhere I walked, there was one of our folks and one of the Highland Ranch folks. They were talking about grandchildren, they were talking about fishing. It was just like our people feeling like they were regular people. And these people were looking at them, like, these are regular folks.”
“And that’s what I wanted for both of those groups,” he said. “Just to have a chance to see each other, and hear each other. And realize that they had something in common — had a shared humanity. And, damn, sometimes that’s all people need, to change something significant.”
“Everytime I tell somebody that story, I feel the same way,” he said, drying his eyes as he sat in his office in Aurora.
“Because you know, this ain’t that hard. It’s not rocket science,” he added. “What we’re doing here is to help people restore their sense of humanity, after whatever experiences have taken that from them. That’s all we’re doing. And it shouldn’t just be siloed in the reentry realm.”