Safely Behind Bars

Prison life didn't suit prominent inmate activist Fidel Ramos, but parole was even worse.

Ramos's new quarters bore more than a passing resemblance to Old Max. "That apartment was scum," he says simply. "The windows were sealed shut. There was no door on the bathroom, no place to store food, no closet for my clothes, and an open drain in the middle of the floor."

Maxine Gallegos, a friend of the Ramos family, recalls visiting Fidel on his first evening in the apartment and watching the cockroaches scurry across the bare floor. "He didn't know what to do," she says. "He had no money. No food. We took him some dishes and tried to do what we could, but he was backed up in a corner."

A visit from a city building inspector, who cited the apartment house for five building-code violations, produced some slight improvements. (David Emge, senior residential health specialist for the Denver Building Department, says that the property had recently changed ownership and is now being upgraded.) Friends donated furniture; various charity groups chipped in enough money to pay another week's rent when the first month ran out.

But Ramos was frustrated by his parole officer's insistence that he remain confined in the apartment except for visits to church, grocery shopping or job-hunting--which was tricky, at best, since he was required to give 24 hours' notice before he could go to a job interview or report for day labor. One job prospect was nixed because the potential employer was an ex-felon himself; his keepers also didn't approve of Ramos attending meetings of prison-reform groups or even testifying about parole issues before the legislature.

"They kept telling me, 'You're in jail, you can't do any of these things,'" he says. "It was worse than being in the hole. I could look out the window, but I couldn't go anywhere. At least in prison you get a recreation period and can play handball."

By early May, Ramos was leaving messages for his parole officer and his home-detention supervisor: "I can't do this anymore. Send me back." He was also starting to provide urine samples that tested positive for marijuana.

"I was trying to give them an excuse to violate me," he says now. "I could very easily have stayed away from it, but I thought, 'A dirty urine--hey, automatic setback. Let me go back and do my year and get these people out of my hair.'"

But it wasn't as automatic as he'd hoped. It wasn't until he put his ankle bracelet in the mail and went "on the run," as he puts it, that a warrant was issued for his arrest. Detained by a security guard at the Villa Italia shopping mall on suspicion of shoplifting (Ramos denies the charge), he was soon back in jail. His latest parole experiment had lasted barely six weeks.

Longtime prisoners like Ramos tend to be among the riskiest parolees, and his friends question whether federal corrections officials made more than a token effort in his case. "He's so institutionalized that I wonder if, in his heart of hearts, he wants to get out," says one acquaintance. "But they should never have let him out without a decent parole plan and a job lined up."

Ramos says he's resigned to finishing his final year under federal supervision inside the walls. He could also face an additional escape charge for leaving his apartment without permission, but he vows to fight the entire matter in court. Home detention can work, he says, but not when the situation is as burdensome and miserable as his turned out to be. And his situation is hardly unique; according to figures compiled by the U.S. Parole Commission, 1,693 federal parolees--roughly one out of five--went back to prison for violations last year.

"If the taxpayers knew what all of this is really costing them and how much of it is being wasted, there'd be more scrutiny of these programs," Ramos says.

Ironically, the federal government is in the process of abolishing parole in favor of what it calls "supervised release," part of an overall shift in federal sentencing practices that dates back to 1987. The U.S. Parole Commission was originally slated to be phased out this year, but the agency recently received a five-year extension of its existence in order to deal with the thousands of prisoners convicted before 1987 who are still on parole--people who, because of problems on the inside or even greater problems on the street, are still stuck in the revolving door.

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