DENVER — Critics have stepped forward to criticize a program by Colorado's Department of Corrections that allows prisoners the opportunity to become stars on stage in the name of rehabilitation.
"It's not right. It's just not right," said Amy Mund, whose sister's killer and the man who tried to kill her is one of the inmate "stars."
"This is ridiculous," said 18th Judicial District DA George Brauchler. "We're talking about long term convicted felons because they've committed some of the most egregious violent acts in our state. Why are we worried about whether they find the joy of acting?"
The criticism follows months of rave reviews and positive stories by multiple news organizations, including The New York Times, the Denver Post and several Denver-area TV stations, including Scripps station KMGH. The Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) has paid the University of Denver more than $400,000 for the current fiscal year to organize and produce plays involving male and female inmates for performances in 10 state prisons, and this past December, at the university.
"We are asking the question about what we really think about second chances and redemption and mercy healing," said Ashley Hamilton, the co-founder and director of the University of Denver's Prison Arts Initiative. "I would just really invite people to open their minds to what's happening and to the transformation that's happening with the department of corrections."
The Colorado Department of Corrections has called the program "historic," "groundbreaking," and believes it provides significant rehabilitation for the inmates who participate in the plays.
"Our goal is to make Colorado safer by helping the people who are incarcerated," said Dean Williams, the director of the Colorado Department of Corrections. "Since 19% of [inmates] are coming home, I think it behooves us to take care of what we do behind the walls."
But not everyone views it through glasses of pride and optimism.
"It kills me, and it's revictimizing me and making it seem like my sister's life didn't matter," Mund said.
Nearly 24 years ago, one of the performers of a recent DOC theatrical performance broke into Mund's home, tied her up, gagged her and assaulted her. The man also killed Mund's sister, Karen, during the incident.
"I noticed there was a gentleman in my kitchen dressed in black with a knife in his hand," said Mund, recalling the painful memory of that 1996 day she walked into her Aurora apartment. "I was hogtied to my bed. My clothes were taken off. I was assaulted. I managed to get the gag out of my mouth and yelled for my sister. She didn't answer. I knew something was wrong."
In the months that followed, Christopher Shetskie agreed to a plea of life in prison without the possibility of parole for murdering Karen Mund and assaulting Amy Mund. Behind bars, he's known as inmate #92178. Mund is upset because and on stage, he hears applause and is considered a "star."
"He's a sick bastard! What he did to my family and me...he's a monster," Mund said. "I mean, for all intents and purposes, he killed me too."
"Isn't there something else we can do that might be a little more victim sensitive than to cut these people loose to hear applause and rave reviews about how great this is?" Brauchler said. "Maybe there needs to be a little more time for self-reflection on the violence and evil that they've inflicted on other people."
Brauchler got involved after Mund contacted his office asking for the victim's assistance when she learned her attacker was leaving his prison cell and driving across the state to perform at other prisons.
Both Brauchler and Mund have asked the Department of Corrections to reconsider and re-evaluate its Prison Arts Initiative program. Specifically, they have asked the director of the DOC to prevent criminals convicted of murder or other serious crimes from performing in prison productions.
Mund also wants the CDOC to notify victims when criminals responsible for their crimes are being transported from their prison cells to perform.
"This is a prison. This is punishment, and he needs to feel it," Mund said. "What is going on? I mean, prison is starting to look glamorous. It's prison. It's punishment, and it's not being portrayed that way."
The Department of Corrections declined both requests made by Brauchler and Mund. Through a spokesperson, it released the following statement and information in response to the requests:
"We hold victims and their families in the highest regard, and have the deepest sympathy for the trauma they have experienced as a result of the crimes that the offenders in our custody have been convicted of. The Department of Corrections takes very seriously the responsibility we have to protect the citizens of Colorado by holding offenders accountable, while simultaneously providing opportunities for offenders to make positive behavioral changes which helps prevent further victimization. With over 90% of offenders eventually returning to society, it is critical for public safety that DOC does everything in its power to ensure that offenders come out of prison better than when they went in. Even for those offenders who are serving life terms, providing programming options that help them develop pro-social behaviors ensures that our facilities are safer for staff and other offenders, because we know that idleness, lack of purpose, and starkness behind the walls makes for inhumane and unsafe prisons."
This story was originally published by Tony Kovaleski on KMGH in Denver.