Discovery Cafe offers Rifle Correctional Center inmates relatable, peer-to-peer conversations

Matthew Wright sits in during a recovery circle meeting at Rifle Correctional Center on Aug. 9.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

Matthew Wright was running low on sleep. The tall, bulky 34-year-old California native brimming with tattoos told the group he’s anxious because he’s waiting to see if he is accepted into a halfway house.

“I’ve been struggling with patience here and there, and things that are out of my control, like the halfway house,” he said. “I put in a few months ago, and I’ve just been waiting.

“Hopefully, they’ll show me some love.”

Wright was among a contingent of fellow Rifle Correctional Center inmates in the chapel Aug. 9, a small building furnished with about eight pews, a large TV set and idle instruments used by the worship band.

Inmates gather in this small prison chapel every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday morning. They sip coffee, munch on donuts and open up about their lives. The congregation is orchestrated by Gabe Cohen, a former inmate who uses his previous experiences to help others.

“I’ve been to prison seven times in Colorado,” Cohen told the group. “Majority of the times I was released homeless.

“I’ve had no car, no phone, no job, no money.”

Discovery Cafe’s Gabe Cohen holds a recovery circle meeting at Rifle Correctional Center on Aug. 9.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

On the outside, Cohen founded Discovery Cafe. Since 2021, this program geared toward helping homeless, addicted and disenfranchised people has given a safe place for open and honest candor. It’s also a means for connecting people with several additional sources that may help their lives. This may include obtaining Social Security cards and proper identification.

But what about those residing within the Colorado Department of Corrections? Once COVID-19 issues subsided, Cohen began bringing Discovery Cafe to the correctional facility in March. He also has plans to train inmates as recovery coaches, so they can also use shared experiences to connect with and help other people.

“People have opportunities out here to go to a Mind Springs or Mountain Family for mental health or see a private therapist or go to AA or go to an outside church or go to Celebrate Recovery,” he said. “But to go into a place where these guys had nothing for a couple of years? It’s really powerful.”

Wright had an epiphany after his 2015 arrest. Sitting in his cell, he was struck by a desire to change positively. He found faith and began attending a number of programs offered by the department of corrections, including Cohen’s recovery circles. His extracurricular activities also consist of playing bass and guitar for the facility’s worship band and notching records in the prison weightlifting program. Lifting 765 pounds, he claims the Rifle Correctional Center record in dead lift.

“Celebrate Recovery is a big one for me, because it’s a group where we stand up and we talk and we expose things about our life that most people wouldn’t want to talk about,” he said. “All this stuff that I have to say is part of my testimony to becoming a better person.”

“My main goal in life is just to get out, get back into my kids’ lives — my two daughters — and just make a good future.”

According to a 2018 study conducted by the American Psychological Association, more than 600,000 people are released from incarceration annually. But three quarters of them are rearrested within five years. Leading factors range from employment eligibility, finding affordable housing and barriers to social safety nets.

At Rifle Correctional Center, a minimum-security prison with a more open-campus feel, it houses 192 beds. Meanwhile, it offers community-based labor services and things like secondary education and vocational opportunities.

William Wyatt looks on as he participates in a recovery circle meeting at Rifle Correctional Center on Aug. 9.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

Georgia native Roger Sullivan, 52, has spent the past 11 months trying to obtain a new Social Security card. Without it, gainful employment and the possibility of release becomes more difficult. The inmate of six years uses his allotted time to speak during Cohen’s recovery circle to underscore just how critical it is to obtain these documents.

“The first thing you need to do is work on getting your birth certificate, your Social Security Card,” he said. “If your life was like mine out on the streets? Mine was a mess, and all my paperwork is gone.”

Sullivan has a case worker, but they’re not going to do the work for you, he said.

“You gotta do it yourself. It’s not their job,” he said. “If you screw up, it’s your job to fix this.”

Favian Acevedo, 39, was the final inmate to speak. He opened up about his struggles with the penal system, his addictions and his communications with family. He’s a former construction worker who specialized in sheet metal, and that’s what he wants to get back to.

“I’m just grabbing on to all the tools that I could grab onto,” he said. “That way, I’m able to be more successful out there.”

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