Here at the Criminal Affairs Desk, we get letters from inmates. Boy, do we get letters. But one recent missive from a Colorado prisoner offers some of the best advice we've ever heard for negotiating a long stretch in the state prison system. Such as: Don't ask, don't snitch. Keep an eye out for shanks. Never, ever, ever trust a guard. And act like that male prisoner is actually female.
Our correspondent doesn't want his name used. "It would be better for my health if my name is not published," he writes. He's still got way too much time to go inside the Colorado Department of Corrections.
"I see the parole board for the fourth time this year, having 19 years credit on a 32-year sentence," he continues. "On my third hearing I spent a year to get outside contacts, housing and medical care arranged, as well as contacting Washington, D.C., when my case manager refused to help, so I could get my birth certificate and ID. Prisoners should expect to do all these things themselves and not wait for help. I have never received any type of response to any question asked DOC HQ."
Our man has had battles with prison authorities over mental health treatment and has spent time in the San Carlos prison (designed for the mentally ill) and the Colorado State Penitentiary (the supermax that houses many prisoners with untreated mental disorders, as detailed in my 2006 feature "Head Games"). In several high-security prisons, he claims, up to a third of the inmates "argue with voices when the CO [correctional officer] is not around. Fear of being made worse by incompetent doctors stops them from getting help."
But he also has more general concerns about the snitch culture inside prison, the worthlessness of many of the educational and therapeutic classes offered ("Completion certificates do not mean anything to parole, I have an even dozen") -- and the always simmering violence.
Marijuana Deals Near You
He narrowly missed the riot at the Crowley private prison a few years back, and he was in an office at Arkansas Valley back in 2001 when 52-year-old inmate Louis Mayfield barged in, pleading with a sergeant "to put him in protective custody because a gang was planning to murder him for ratting out a CO for having sex with inmates. The sergeant said she wanted to see what they do to him first, since the other CO was her friend.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
"On 12/12/2001 eight inmates entered Mayfield's cell with socks and locks, and murdered him. Internal affairs took my statement and asked if I recorded the conversation with the sergeant. Since I had no recording, it was strongly suggested that I don't spread rumors, or I would be charged with filing false reports."
All of which has led our correspondent to offer the following ten "lessons learned" from his time inside:
1. To be a perfect pessimist.
2. Offender is our name, to show that we are subhuman.
3. Don't snitch. If other inmates don't get you, the CO will.
4. Expect to fight upon entry to a new facility.
5. Do not tell others that that is not a girl when asked if she is pretty. Just say you have bigger worries and have not looked. (Yes, it's a man with makeup.) You will be beaten if you say they are gay for having sex with that "girl." They say, "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do while inside."
6. Want to fit in? Watch Cops on TV and join discussion on how criminal could have avoided capture, or killed pig, or kept drugs.
7. Sneak attacks with shanks are manly. Watch yourself.
8. Lots of recipes for drugs and bombs are available.
9. Any admission of a crime in any group can send you back to court.
10. If you must fight (and you do), fight to hurt them.
More from our News archive: "'Labia lift' strip searches: ACLU action gooses prison officials into changing degrading policy."