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"In Colorado, corrections officers labeled openly gay people as troublemakers," he says. "You can't believe them, they get in relationships and then claim rape — and so on. The message goes out to the inmate population that these are people to victimize because they already have a bad reputation among staff, and nobody's going to believe them."

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Almost from the moment he hit the yard at the Fremont Correctional Facility in late 2004, Scott Howard knew he was in trouble. The medium-security prison was run differently from anything he'd seen before. And too many people he didn't know already knew who he was and what he'd done.

Fremont wasn't Howard's first rodeo. He arrived there in the middle of a ten-year tour of state and federal prisons, the result of a fraud spree in Colorado, Wisconsin, Tennessee and elsewhere. His criminal history also involved jail stays in Florida and Texas, where he reportedly tried to post as bond collateral the car he was accused of stealing.

Howard grew up in a small town in Tennessee, where his sexual orientation was a poor fit with the prevailing Baptist culture. He left home, acquired a taste for gambling and the high life, and was busted in Florida in 1991, at age 21, after he stole a friend's credit card and used it to hire a limo. He soon graduated to computer hacking and more sophisticated forms of identity theft.

In the late 1990s, Howard discovered major security flaws in the payroll systems of large corporations, which often relied on outside agencies to issue paychecks to temporary staff. He used a Trojan program to steal data from corporate websites, then submitted payroll requests to staffing agencies, either in his own name or someone else's. It was a surprisingly simple and lucrative scam, as long as he moved quickly to the next pigeon before the fraud could be detected.

"It was a traveling crime," Howard says. "It took me to thirty cities in a year. I was in my twenties, and it was fun back then. It was also very stupid and very high-risk."

The scam unraveled in Wisconsin in 1999. A woman at a temp agency noted that Howard's zip code didn't match the address he submitted with a check request. When he came to pick up his money, he was arrested. A check for $40,000, issued by the Hershey Corporation, was found in his pocket.

Sentenced to eight years, Howard soon came up with an even more audacious plan to collect cash while behind bars. He filed a bogus tax return, claiming a $17,155 refund — and the Internal Revenue Service actually paid it. The next year he asked for $1.2 million, complete with forged letters on charity letterheads acknowledging enormous contributions.

This time the IRS took a closer look. Howard soon had federal time piled on top of his state sentence. But first he had another stint in Colorado, stemming from a payroll fraud in Denver that had been uncovered after his Wisconsin arrest. That's what brought him to the yard at Fremont — and a sense of impending doom.

Scott Howard's history of obtaining bogus refunds was the tip of prison-tax-fraud iceberg

As a gay man who'd already spent substantial time behind bars, Howard thought he knew how to keep out of trouble. He'd seen plenty of intimidation and gang-related fights at other lockups, but nothing like the atmosphere at Fremont. Prisoners sporting black eyes in the lunch line were a common sight. Members of the 211 Crew commanded their own set of tables in the dining hall, known as the Four Corners, and charged weaker white inmates tribute for the privilege of living in one of "their" units.

The 211s were particularly vocal about their hatred of homosexuals and sex offenders. Howard observed several openly gay and transsexual prisoners at Fremont. They were not in a good place. "All of these people were paying rent and being beaten," he says. "If you were smaller, or suspected of being gay, or a pretty-boy type — anything of that sort got back to them."

Gangs are a fact of life in prison. But Howard had never seen one that operated so openly, with so little official interference. "You had good officers and even overzealous officers, but most of them were older and very nonchalant about what was going on," he says. "They told me, 'This is prison. This is not a playground. If you don't like it, you shouldn't have come here.'"

Officially, the 211 Crew is far from a pervasive presence in Colorado's prisons, with roughly 300 "confirmed" members in a population of more than 20,000. Howard insists the actual numbers are much higher, and the gang clearly had a particular interest in him. Within a few days, three members approached him, beaming friendship, and asked about "all that cash" he'd scammed from big companies and the government. They seemed extremely well-informed about his attempt at a big tax refund, which had made headlines. Despite Howard's denials that he'd been any kind of financial genius, he was soon fielding daily questions about tax fraud.

The conversations quickly got less genial. Howard made little attempt to disguise who he was in prison — in one court filing, his attorneys describe him as "obviously gay" — and the gang members soon had their suspicions confirmed. They frequently intercepted other inmates' mail, on the lookout for money order receipts or other helpful intel, and one of the items they came across was a gay magazine a friend had sent Howard.

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