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Felon completes first year as Nevada prison system employee

Gone now is the fear that his new life could be ripped away without warning.

At exactly 5 p.m. on Aug. 12, Michael Russell officially completed a one-year probationary period as an at-will employee with the Nevada Department of Corrections — a feat some had doubted he could accomplish.

“I got a lot of pushback from other employees,” he said last week.

Russell, now 40, did three stints as an inmate in California and Nevada prisons before he was 35. But he has now been out of custody and sober for nearly five years.

In a telephone interview Thursday, Russell looked back on the year since June 2018, when he became the first felon to be hired by the Department of Corrections, the same entity that twice held the former drug addict behind bars.

As a program officer for the department, Russell teaches two classes to inmates at Casa Grande Transitional Housing, a facility in Las Vegas that houses nonviolent, non-sex-crime inmates who are within 18 months of parole eligibility.

His story of rehabilitation was first documented by the Las Vegas Review-Journal in January.

“I never thought in a million years that I would ever want to work in a prison,” Russell said at the time during an interview inside his office at Casa Grande. “There are days that I come to work and I think, ‘Is this a dream?’ ”

Since then, in addition to completing his probation, Russell has earned national certification to train other department employees who want to teach Moral Recognition Therapy, a 16-step behavior modification program that he has credited with being the catalyst for change in his life during his last prison stint, in 2014, at High Desert State Prison in Indian Springs. He had landed back in prison on a parole violation after testing positive in multiple drug tests.

Approaching the end of his probation, his students — some of whom had been incarcerated with him at High Desert — also were rooting for him to cross the finish line. Russell suspects it was as much a victory for them as it was for him, a glimmer of hope that they could one day be in his shoes, too.

“A lot of my students have been with me for some time now, and on the day probation ended, they were asking, ‘Did you make it? Did you make it?” he told the Review-Journal last week. “It was just really nice that they remembered, that they care.”

Still, despite his students’ support, some days were more trying than others over the last year, when he felt like he had to work twice as hard to prove himself to the department. But Russell said that by now he thinks he’s gained the trust of most of his colleagues and other department employees.

“It seems like a lot of employees are coming around now knowing that I’m here for the right reasons,” Russell said. “They talk to me like I’m a regular employee now. They help me a lot when I need it, and they ask me for help — that’s the biggest difference, I think, is that they come to me for help now.”

In January, his boss, Elizabeth Dixon-Coleman, said Russell’s employment was stirring up a long-needed change to the department’s culture.

“It’s history in the making,” she said at the time. “We’re working toward being more rehabilitative and giving people more opportunities.”

Russell has now shifted his focus to completing his bachelor’s degree — in criminal justice with a concentration in human services and corrections administration.

In the future, he plans to work with youth offenders and help steer them clear of the kind of life he lived for so long.

“He’s always trying to help change everybody’s life,” his mother, Jill Drysdale, said last week. “I couldn’t be prouder. I always knew he would do important things.”

Contact Rio Lacanlale at rlacanlale@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0381. Follow @riolacanlale on Twitter.

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