Safely Behind Bars

Twenty years ago, Fidel Ramos found the living conditions in Canon City's "Old Max" penitentiary so appalling that he sued the state, charging that the Department of Corrections was inflicting cruel and unusual punishment on its inmates. A federal judge agreed with him, and Ramos's lawsuit changed the entire Colorado prison system.

Two months ago, Ramos discovered that there are worse horrors than prison--such as a vermin-infested basement apartment in Capitol Hill. After a few weeks of life under "home confinement," he pleaded with federal parole officials to send him back to prison. When they declined, he removed the electronic ankle bracelet that was supposed to monitor his movements and mailed it to them, figuring that such a blatant infraction of his parole would land him back behind bars.

He was right. At present Ramos is cooling his heels in the Denver County Jail, awaiting transfer to a federal prison, where he expects to serve out the remaining months of a bank-robbery sentence that has kept him in state and federal prisons for the better part of two decades. Given his limited options, it was the best choice available to him, he insists.

"If I'd wanted to [complete parole], I could have," he says. "But I decided it wasn't worth it. They wanted too much from me. And I'm not one who's going to bend over and say, 'Just slide it in.'"

Thousands of ex-cons fail to complete their parole each year, but Ramos's case stands out--not only because of his history of prison activism, but because of his decision to violate his parole in protest of what he claims were intolerable conditions placed on his release.

"I should never have been released in the first place," he says. "Not the way they did it. They knew it was going to be a failure from the day I came out."

This isn't the first time Ramos has been arrested for violating parole. He spent five years in the state prison system in the early 1970s on a robbery charge. Convicted in 1977 on federal charges of bank robbery and distribution of heroin, he was given a twelve-year sentence but had to return to state prison for violating his parole before he began to serve the federal time. It was during that period that, acting as his own attorney, he filed a lawsuit against Colorado's antiquated maximum-security prison, also known as "Old Max."

The case soon grew into a class-action lawsuit championed by the American Civil Liberties Union, with Ramos named as lead plaintiff. In 1979 U.S. District Court Judge John Kane ruled that conditions at Old Max were unconstitutionally bad and that the prison would have to be closed. Although Ramos v. Lamm dragged on for more than ten years--the case wasn't officially closed until 1994--Kane's ruling forced a building boom in the Department of Corrections that has improved prison conditions across the state and has cost taxpayers upwards of $100 million.

"Ramos was, without a doubt, the case that led to the modernization of Colorado prisons," says David Miller, former legal director of the Colorado ACLU. "People forget that Old Max was a hellhole. Cells were 28 square feet, and people were locked down in them for long periods of time. Sewage came up the pipes. The food was often inedible. Violence was rampant. The stronger inmates really ran the prison."

The case set a precedent that has influenced the course of other lawsuits against state prisons in Limon, Ordway, Buena Vista and elsewhere, he adds.

Now in private practice, Miller says he's kept in touch with Ramos over the years and has been impressed with his dedication to improving the lot of prisoners. "Fidel was seriously concerned with the condition of inmates other than himself, which distinguished him from the vast majority of inmates I dealt with," he says. "Fidel had a job in prison, and he took it seriously."

But by the time the case was resolved, Ramos had embarked on a seemingly endless journey through the federal prison system. He was released four times in recent years, he says, only to be sent back for parole violations--usually for testing positive for drugs. He was finally granted mandatory release on April 1 of this year, but the release came with "special parole" conditions that would require him to be under federal supervision for another thirteen months.

Although he had already gone to court to challenge the parole conditions--which included frequent drug testing and six months of electronic monitoring--Ramos says he was determined to succeed this time out. But the arrangement quickly fell apart over what he claims was a lack of proper planning by the feds. The entire sum of his parole resources, he says, consisted of some tenuous job prospects and the $100 handed to parolees upon release.