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.

"They say they have a pre-release program, but they don't," Ramos says. "They had me watch a ten-minute film on how to get a job. That was about it."

Federal parole officials decline to comment on Ramos's situation. But friends and members of prison support groups who tried to help him make the transition say he received minimal assistance from the government. Initially, he was supposed to be sent to a local halfway house; when that facility turned him down, he was placed under "home confinement" at his sister's apartment, requiring him to pay $140 a month for an electronic monitoring service. However, his sister couldn't meet all the conditions required for accommodating him, such as special restrictions on phone access, so Ramos borrowed money for a damage deposit and moved into the only place he could afford: a $325-a-month studio apartment on East 12th Avenue in Capitol Hill.

Ramos's new quarters bore more than a passing resemblance to Old Max. "That apartment was scum," he says simply. "The windows were sealed shut. There was no door on the bathroom, no place to store food, no closet for my clothes, and an open drain in the middle of the floor."

Maxine Gallegos, a friend of the Ramos family, recalls visiting Fidel on his first evening in the apartment and watching the cockroaches scurry across the bare floor. "He didn't know what to do," she says. "He had no money. No food. We took him some dishes and tried to do what we could, but he was backed up in a corner."

A visit from a city building inspector, who cited the apartment house for five building-code violations, produced some slight improvements. (David Emge, senior residential health specialist for the Denver Building Department, says that the property had recently changed ownership and is now being upgraded.) Friends donated furniture; various charity groups chipped in enough money to pay another week's rent when the first month ran out.

But Ramos was frustrated by his parole officer's insistence that he remain confined in the apartment except for visits to church, grocery shopping or job-hunting--which was tricky, at best, since he was required to give 24 hours' notice before he could go to a job interview or report for day labor. One job prospect was nixed because the potential employer was an ex-felon himself; his keepers also didn't approve of Ramos attending meetings of prison-reform groups or even testifying about parole issues before the legislature.

"They kept telling me, 'You're in jail, you can't do any of these things,'" he says. "It was worse than being in the hole. I could look out the window, but I couldn't go anywhere. At least in prison you get a recreation period and can play handball."

By early May, Ramos was leaving messages for his parole officer and his home-detention supervisor: "I can't do this anymore. Send me back." He was also starting to provide urine samples that tested positive for marijuana.

"I was trying to give them an excuse to violate me," he says now. "I could very easily have stayed away from it, but I thought, 'A dirty urine--hey, automatic setback. Let me go back and do my year and get these people out of my hair.'"

But it wasn't as automatic as he'd hoped. It wasn't until he put his ankle bracelet in the mail and went "on the run," as he puts it, that a warrant was issued for his arrest. Detained by a security guard at the Villa Italia shopping mall on suspicion of shoplifting (Ramos denies the charge), he was soon back in jail. His latest parole experiment had lasted barely six weeks.

Longtime prisoners like Ramos tend to be among the riskiest parolees, and his friends question whether federal corrections officials made more than a token effort in his case. "He's so institutionalized that I wonder if, in his heart of hearts, he wants to get out," says one acquaintance. "But they should never have let him out without a decent parole plan and a job lined up."

Ramos says he's resigned to finishing his final year under federal supervision inside the walls. He could also face an additional escape charge for leaving his apartment without permission, but he vows to fight the entire matter in court. Home detention can work, he says, but not when the situation is as burdensome and miserable as his turned out to be. And his situation is hardly unique; according to figures compiled by the U.S. Parole Commission, 1,693 federal parolees--roughly one out of five--went back to prison for violations last year.

"If the taxpayers knew what all of this is really costing them and how much of it is being wasted, there'd be more scrutiny of these programs," Ramos says.

Ironically, the federal government is in the process of abolishing parole in favor of what it calls "supervised release," part of an overall shift in federal sentencing practices that dates back to 1987. The U.S. Parole Commission was originally slated to be phased out this year, but the agency recently received a five-year extension of its existence in order to deal with the thousands of prisoners convicted before 1987 who are still on parole--people who, because of problems on the inside or even greater problems on the street, are still stuck in the revolving door.

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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