Inmates Teach Students to Make the Right Choices
By Lynn Doan, Internet Reporter

It hasn’t happened yet. But if anyone asks Nancy Delgado if she’d like to try drugs or ditch school in the future, the eighth grader said she would think before acting so she can make the right choices.

“It’s important to make the right choices because if you don’t, you’re going to end up really bad,” said Delgado, who is finishing up her last year at Lamar Middle School in Lamar, Col.. “You might end up like the prisoners.”

The prisoners to whom Delgado was referring are actually inmates from the Bent County Correctional Facility, located 45 minutes away from the school. Through the prison’s Convicts Helping Others Inspire Communication Education Success (CHOICES) program, a group of eight volunteer inmates talk to students like Delgado about the wrong choices they have made in life.

In the Visiting Room

Since August 2001, CHOICES inmates have been meeting with local elementary, middle and high school students in Bent County’s visiting room to discuss the bad decisions that landed them behind bars.

“We show the students how prison is really like and how easily you can end up here,” said Joy Cunningham, who supervises the CHOICES program. “If we can just prevent one kid from ending up in prison, then the whole program is worth it.”

After the inmates introduce themselves and talk about their lives before prison, they take the students on a guided tour of the facilities. The tour is followed by lunchtime discussions, after which inmates perform skits and scenarios with students to emphasize the importance of making the right decisions.

Bent County inmate Clayton Lee, 25, said the tours teach children to appreciate the freedom they have to make their own choices.

“Kids think it’s tough out there, and then they come in here and see how we’re told when to eat, what to wear, when to sleep and wake up,” Lee said. “We want the kids to understand that their lives are not as bad, and they have choices that shouldn’t be taken for granted.”

According to James McCuiston, who is serving 80 years for sexual assault, the most difficult, but most necessary, part of the CHOICES program is standing up in front of the students to explain how he ended up in prison.

“You have to be willing to let everything about yourself be known, to tear yourself down,” McCuiston said.

This way, McCuiston said, the children understand that inmates are not “happy-go-lucky individuals.” Instead, the prisoners attempt to paint a picture of themselves as “being really ugly.”

“We show them that even though they’re seeing eight well-dressed, well-behaved inmates in front of them, there are 600 individuals behind that visiting door just waiting for potential victims,” he said.

Delgado agreed that the inmates’ presentations of themselves were the most effective part of the program.

“I liked how all the prisoners got up to tell us about their experiences because it made me think about how I should think about the things I do before I act,” she said.

During the presentations, Cunningham said the inmates outline eight topics for discussion: education, choices and consequences, boundaries, peer pressure, drugs, alcohol, communication and prison life.

Inmates Help Themselves

Though it is difficult, McCuiston said the self-presentations are emotionally helpful to the inmates as well, allowing them to look back on their behavior and learn from their mistakes instead of dwelling on them.

“By presenting myself to groups of students, I become a better person,” he said.

Also, Lee said the program is a way of redeeming himself for the wrong decisions he has made in the past.

“In my eyes, I was a really selfish person, and CHOICES is a way for me to give back, to offer something back to the community,” he said.

In addition to meeting with students, the inmates conduct ice cream and pizza fundraisers within the prison, primarily to pay for the transportation costs of busing students to and from the facilities.

At the beginning of the year, the inmates used their additional profits to buy two color television sets with DVD players for Columbian Elementary School in Las Animas, Col.. They have also provided backpacks filled with school supplies for underprivileged children in the area.

Benefiting Schools and Parents

The inmates’ fundraising efforts have enabled Lamar Middle School counselor Lara Olson to bus eighth grade classes to the prison every six weeks. She estimated that more than 100 Lamar students are able to participate in the CHOICES program each year.

“It gives the kids a good look at what one poor choice can do to their lives…a good dose of reality,” Olson said, noting that Lamar was one of the first schools to pilot the program. “They are at a good age developmentally to see what choices inmates have made that changed their lives, ruining their lives basically.” 

The school also encourages parents to accompany their children to the prison because the program emphasizes strong communication within families. Olson said that she has only received positive feedback from parents who have participated in the past.

However, those who are unable to attend can rest assured that their children will be safe at the prison with CHOICES inmates. Prisoners must meet certain requirements before they are permitted to participate in the program.

CHOICES does not accept inmates who have been charged with any crimes involving children. Volunteers must also have spent at least 12 months in the facilities and must be at least two years away from parole eligibility to ensure that they are not participating in the program to increase their chances of parole.

During the guided tours, the rest of the prison’s inmates are also on lockdown.

The Trust Factor

Because of this added security at the prison, inmates said the CHOICES program forms an environment of trust.

According to inmate Richard Freiberger, who is serving eight years for forgery theft and conspiracy, students can talk to inmates about issues that they do not feel comfortable discussing with their parents about.

“Because of our backgrounds and because we’re inmates, it’s easier for [students] to tell us if they have consumed alcohol or smoked weed,” Freiberger said.

Lee added that students also talk more freely about suicide, an issue that often comes up during lunchtime discussions.

“We let them know that suicide is a long-term solution to a short-term problem, just like prison is not an answer or an easy way out,” he said.

Ultimately, inmate Michael LaMach said it comes down to teaching the students to make the right choices, even when decisions seem to be insignificant. 

“Bad situations don’t start with just one bad choice,” he said. “They start with a lot of smaller choices prior to that.”


To learn more about the CHOICES program, contact Joy Cunningham at (719) 456-2610.

The Bent County Correctional Facility is owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America.
159 Burgin Parkway | Quincy, MA 02169
617-471-4445 | Fax 617-770-3339