Fidel Ramos was a criminal and a drug addict. He was also a smart and fearless man who had a central role in forcing the State of Colorado to transform its prisons from hellholes into something more humane. Ramos, who died of a brain hemorrhage at Sterling Correctional Facility last week at age 63, complained in letters toWestword
about the health care available at the prison. But thanks to him, it was a lot better than what inmates used to go through.
Back in the 1970s, Ramos was serving time at Canon City's "Old Max" for bank robbery when he filed a lawsuit, claiming conditions at the ancient penitentiary were unconstitutional. This is how his lawyer described the place, in an interview years later: "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."
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The Ramos lawsuit became a class action suit spearheaded by the American Civil Liberties Union. U.S. District Judge John Kane ordered the state to fix Old Max or close it. The suit dragged on into the 1990s and led to more than $100 million in improvements of conditions throughout the system.
Ramos took seriously his role in the reform. He championed other inmates and wasn't shy about pursuing complaints when prison authorities, in his view, failed to live up to the terms of the settlement. He became a vocal and relentless critic of substandard prison health care that required, for example, inmates suffering chest pains to wait hours or days to see medical personnel. He once made a dramatic statement about inadequate parole services by removing his ankle bracelet and mailing it to his parole officer, knowing he'd be sent back to prison.
It would be easy to dismiss him as just another whiny, seasoned con, someone who just liked to screw with the system. Easy -- and wrong. True, he was a hopeless recidivist, bouncing between the federal and the state system over parole failures, drug charges and old robbery beefs, and probably felt more comfortable in prison than on the street. Yet his letters were always thoughtful, well-informed and to the point. The fact that he was a felon didn't give the state the right to treat him like a noxious insect. He insisted on his dignity, and made the place a little more bearable for thousands of other condemned men and women.
To read more about Ramos and conditions inside Colorado's prisons, check out our Crime and Punishment archive.