Hard Time

The oldest lifer in Colorado prisons is dying to be anywhere but here.

He is dying in here.

He is sitting alone in his white prison cell with his library books and his Ramen noodles, losing control of his body. He is sleeping nine hours a night and waking at six the next morning but feeling like he hasn't slept at all. He is pushing himself up from a hard, flat bunk, but can't make his right arm and his right leg behave. He is holding a razor in his left hand, but he is not left-handed, so he cuts himself again and again. He is waiting for a convict to push his wheelchair to the cafeteria for breakfast, but the convict never comes, so he stays hungry.

He is Alfred Madson Jr., 82 years old, twice convicted of murder, the oldest lifer in Colorado. And he is running out of time.

Alfred Madson Jr., arrested for murder in 1941.
Alfred Madson Jr., arrested for murder in 1941.


Read Madson's letter to Westword regarding Harrison Fletcher.

f you want to do a story, come see me for the true facts," he writes.

hey wheel him into a room at the Fremont medium-security prison. Madson sits stiffly in his chair, jaw set, hands folded before him.

His face is colorless and his eyes are milky. He swallows hard after he speaks and struggles through words like "participation." On the fingers of each hand are the remnants of a tattoo, "Love Bess," which he filed away with sandpaper.

This is what it comes down to, his 42 years in prison: mealtime, nap time, yard time, paperbacks, a hot cup of noodles, Wheel of Fortune, maybe a football game on his black-and-white TV.

He has no visitors. His parents are dead, his sister lives in Lamar, his brother lives in L.A.

"I told them people I don't want nothing to do with nobody unless I get out, and then we can pick up where we left off," he says. "Otherwise, forget it."

He has no friends, either, inside or out.

"A couple of guys in my unit help me out now and then," he says. "I don't pay attention to their names. I don't even know their numbers. One washes windows. That's all I know."

He has no trouble with other inmates.

"I've been inside too long for that," he says. "I mind my own business and my reputation is all right -- there ain't no snitching. Even if something happens, I'm not afraid. I don't care whether I get killed or not. It doesn't mean anything to me anymore."

But he does care about this: Clearing his name, correcting the record, getting out before it is too late.

He says he was wrongly charged with murder the first time he was put behind bars. He says he was wrongly convicted in the second murder case that returned him to prison. He has filed appeal after appeal and written one rambling letter after another. He is a hard and angry old man looking for someone to believe him.

And that is not easy.

The way he tells it, the story begins in La Junta, at the end of the Dust Bowl era. His father works as a supply clerk and hospital attendant and his mother stays home with the three kids; he is the oldest. Times are hard, but the family vegetable garden keeps food on the table. Madson passes the ninth grade and soon stumbles into "Halloween-type trouble" that lands him in reform school and even a federal prison.

On August 28, 1941, Madson is 23. Work is scarce, so he and a buddy named Frank Madill decide to apply at a Denver tire factory. They leave La Junta at 2:30 a.m., after Madill finishes his shift at the railroad shops, in a '34 Ford Sedan Madson borrowed from his father. They take the back road -- Highway 71 -- and stop for gas some eighty miles later at a general store called the Punkin Center.

They honk, and the 67-year-old owner, Howard Stevens, walks outside.

Madill orders five gallons and Stevens starts pumping.

After a few moments, Madson climbs from the car and watches the man work.

Stevens gets spooked by the sullen youth and drops the hose.

"You must be robbers," he says. "No one is going to rob me again."

Stevens fumbles in his pocket for a pistol and Madson grabs hold of him. They wrestle. Stevens works free and Madson runs around the car.

The old man fires.

Madson is hit just below the right elbow.

The old man raises the gun again.

Madson reaches in the car for a .22 pistol on the dashboard and shoots back.

Stevens grabs his chest.

Madson and Madill return to La Junta. A few weeks later, Madson is arrested for Stevens's murder.

He confesses, he says now, because he shot Stevens and felt a moral obligation to say so. But it was self-defense, he insists. The old man fired first. Madson didn't plan to rob anyone. It wasn't even his gun. It was Madill's gun. Madill was a two-time loser who did time in prison for burglary. He carried the gun everywhere.

Madill is arrested and also confesses.

Madson pleads guilty and the court appoints him an attorney who also works as a part-time county judge. They do not discuss alternatives such as second-degree murder or manslaughter. They do not discuss much of anything. Madson does not see the attorney again until the night before his trial. Again, there is little discussion.

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