"Labia lift" and other humiliations described in letter from prison

As any viewer of MSNBC's Lockup knows, prison is about punishment, plain and simple, not rehabilitation or even "correction." But does that mean it has to be dehumanizing, too?

Put aside the sadistic guards and power-mad wardens of pulp fiction who enjoy making their charges grovel; the reality of a mind-numbing bureaucracy, overloaded with rules governing every aspect of daily conduct (and always changing for the worse), is bad enough. Prisoners have no way to blog about such things, but that hasn't stopped Krystal Voss from trying to give the outside world a little taste of what life in a Colorado women's prison can be like.

Voss is serving twenty years for child abuse as a result of the 2003 death of her nineteen-month-old son in Alamosa. The Colorado Court of Appeals found her trial was marred by judicial errors and improper conduct by the prosecution but declined to put aside her conviction; I have written on several occasions about the dubious nature of the evidence against her, including here and here.

In addition, she was one of six inmates profiled last fall in "The Quality of Mercy," a feature that pointed out the millions of dollars Governor Bill Ritter could save the state budget if he wanted to address tainted and excessive sentences through clemency.

But her own quest for exoneration aside, Voss writes frequently to outside supporters and family about the way the screws keep tightening on inmates' rights, health care and basic dignity. Here are some excerpts from a missive dealing with recent developments at the Denver Women's Correctional Facility, including now-mandatory strip searches of inmates before seeing visitors, new restrictions on being outdoors, and even green-toed shoes:

"There is a lot going on here I want to share... Many of us have exhausted our Administrative remedies in [trying to challenge] the 'Labia lift' strip search procedure. Prisoner complaint packets are on order from the Federal Court House. It is simply not appropriate for any officer to demand such an invasive examination of our bodies, and it can be abused in many ways.

"The new Warden has an aversion, it seems, to allowing inmates (for the record, I hate the term 'offender') the benefits of fresh air and sunlight. The chairs in the only small outdoor area to sit were removed. Everyone is required to be upright and moving outside. Therefore, the disabled and tired are excluded. The gravel terrain of the yard is not suitable for wheelchairs or unsteady feet.

"Patients wearing medically-provided shoes now have the toes spray painted neon green. In my opinion, this violates H.I.P.P.A and has subjected these women to ridicule by staff and other inmates! It even violates their own regulations ensuring medical confidentiality. Many receiving these medical shoes lack the strength or drive to file grievances and later litigation on this issue. I feel this a deliberate taking advantage of those unable to defend themselves.

"Next time, I will tell you about the newest (ware)housing situation the Warden has also implemented."

In other letters, Voss has written about everything from a sex-assault scandal at a private lockup to being disciplined for having a messy desk. She still has a lot of time to serve, but it sounds like some of her keepers have even more time on their hands.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast