Roots and Shoots - Boulder County Jail


A unique program at Boulder County Jail has inmates learning from nature

By Caitlin Rockett, Composite by Susan France

Marc Bekoff, as my grandmother would say, is a card. He’s the definition of good-natured with an easy smile. He’s quick to lovingly tease, has gray hair pulled back in a ponytail, a silver cuff around the cartilage of his left ear, socks with the PETA logo barely visible above his Converse high-tops. An original hippie to be sure.

We’re stuffing backpacks and saddlebags into shabby blue lockers in the waiting room at the Boulder County Jail.

“Remember to leave your knives and brass knuckles in the locker,” he cracks — but seriously. Leave those here.

He’s done this hundreds of times over the last 16 years — more than 700, he guesses. Marc’s retired after 32 years at CU as a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. Not one to let his zeal fade into oblivion, he comes here once a week to teach an animal behavior class to inmates in the jail’s educational and life skills programming. His is the only class of its kind for inmates anywhere in the world, save for one class in Italy — and that one’s modeled off of Marc’s class.

Our driver’s licenses come out at the check-in window. My belt keeps setting off the metal detector.

“It’s the knife. I told you. Let me get mine out of this bag.” Marc gives me a wink.

Leslie Ogeda leads us back to the module where the class is held. She’s a program specialist for the jail through Community Justice Services. She helps inmates into what’s called the “phases” program, which guides inmates through the process of changing their behaviors. There are classes in art, graphic design, mindfulness, job skills, money management and victim impact. There are parenting classes and yoga classes and classes based around addiction. And there’s Marc’s animal behavior class.

The program carries inmates from their initial decision to change their lives, through their first year after release. During that period, they have access to mental health care, and assistance with housing and food stamps. It can take months for an inmate to be accepted into this program. They’re required to finish a 25-hour independent study book, and even then the program might be too full to take them.

There are dozens of volunteers like Marc who lead classes at the jail. It’s an impressive operation.

Kyle’s not going to be able to join us today, Leslie tells Marc as we walk down a series of hallways between locked doors. She says Kyle had an altercation yesterday.

A buzzer goes off. We walk through another door.

Marc is visibly disappointed, worried even. He’d mentioned earlier that Kyle had drawn a picture of a sloth especially for today’s class. Much has been made of Kyle Warner’s talent. He picked up all his artistic skill over a decade in correctional facilities, Marc says, and he currently teaches an art class at the jail. He’s been given a booth at this year’s Denver Comic Con, and Marc worries a setback like this could end all that.

Leslie assures him everything will be OK, and Marc seems relieved. He’ll ask about it again later, double-checking that everything really is OK. Marc is rooting for Kyle, but then again, Marc is rooting for all the inmates. Frankly, Marc is rooting for the whole world.

We pass a series of cell blocks, each block clearly visible through panes of glass, each virtually the same — cells grouped in twos in an upper and lower level — until we reach our block.

Everything is either bright or dull. Day-Glo orange shoes pop against khaki uniforms. Fluorescent lighting aggressively highlights off-white walls.

This is Transitions.

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Marc Bekoff