KOLD INVESTIGATES: Joining the fight to reduce recidivism rate in Arizona

Locked down

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a three-part series examining prisons in Arizona. The other stories can be read HERE and HERE.

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Film making is Nate McKowen’s passion.

“2007 is when I graduated from film school," he said. “I came back to Tucson, started a film production business.”

McKowen was 22 years old and said his career looked promising.

“I’ve always done things to the fullest, whether it is chasing my dreams or making bad decisions," he said.

A series of bad decisions fueled by substance abuse ultimately led to a life-changing moment.

“I decided to drive when I shouldn’t have been driving," he said. “I got into a car accident and I killed somebody.”

McKowen was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

“It’s been over nine years, and I still really haven’t fully dealt with any of that,” McKowen said. “In prison, you have to harden yourself. That compassion you have for yourself, the compassion you have for other people, in prison, that is not acceptable, that is considered weakness. The conditions inside of prison do not allow for healing.”

For nearly a decade, McKowen would watch as inmates, excited for their release and a second chance, would return within a year or two.

“When you are told you are a worthless criminal for years, and then you get out, how do you find the self esteem, self love to actually go and do something positive for yourself,” McKowen asked.

According to the Arizona Department of Corrections, of the more than 42,000 inmates incarcerated across the state in July 2019, more than half had been there before.

Because of that stat, news that McKowen would be released from prison after serving a little more than 8 1/2 years did not bring the relief you would imagine.

“I needed hope,” McKowen said. “I realized that if I can use my passion to create hope for other people then that gives my life meaning."

McKowen is working on what he dreamed up in his cell -- a documentary that captures the challenges of those adjusting to life outside of prison.

His documentary took him to a town hall in Phoenix.

“I want people’s voices to be heard,” McKowen said.

There, former inmates and loved ones of those incarcerated shared personal stories.

One woman said her son was sentenced to five year for stealing five video games. She said less than a year before he was supposed to be released, he was assaulted and died.

Another woman said her friend died in ADC custody and called for a change in leadership.

State lawmaker Diego Rodriguez attended the town hall and listened to those concerns.

He said he would take the information back to the Capitol.

He said reducing the revolving door must be a priority.

“We are going to be looking at how we can address the expansion of earned release credits, try to get more non-violent offenders out of prison, look at getting them treatment while they are in, look at getting them support after they are released,” Rodriguez said.

As some lawmakers fight for change, McKowen will continue to tell people’s story as he works to shape his own.

“I am hoping through this documentary, people realize that these are human beings that are in prison," he said. “If we remember that, then we realize that these conditions, the way they are now, can’t continue.”

The city of Tucson is taking steps to make former inmates have a chance to return to society after prison.

Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild will be moderating a forum on re-entry at the Fox Theatre from 2-4:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 29. The event is free and open to the public.

Employers, HR professionals and hiring managers are encouraged to attend to learn more about the benefits of hiring reformed inmates.

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