Most Americans don’t think or talk much about the way prisons in this country are funded or run. We want a vague, blanket assurance that our politicians and their appointees are being tough on crime. We pay attention to verdicts and to sentences but not to what happens afterward, to the experience that a convicted criminal has over the years before he or she most likely reenters society. We forget—or we simply don’t bother to recognize—that the nature of this experience has an effect on whether the criminal breaks the law again. We want to feel safe, and yet we’re utterly uneducated about, and inattentive to, a part of our criminal justice system that in fact has enormous bearing on our safety.
Tom Clements, who was the head of Colorado’s prison system from the start of 2011 until his murder this week, made me realize that. A little over two months ago, on a reporting trip to Colorado, I happened to find myself seated a few feet from him at a dinner in CañonCity, about a two-hour drive from Denver. He happened to mention what he did for a living. And for the next 30 minutes, over bad steak and worse salmon, I sought, and got, a lively tutorial. It was fascinating enough and he was engaging enough that I tucked his card into my pocket and made him promise that we could talk again sometime. An approachable and affable man, he promised.