The Authority Thing

Casey Holden and his parole officer seem to be getting along just fine so far. She approves of his decision to go to school, to try to make something of himself after spending most of the last decade behind bars. He appreciates that she treats him like a human being, even though the law doesn't require her to do that.

Holden did mess up in one way recently. He got chewed out for writing letters to other prisoners at the Colorado state pen, where he spent the last four years in lockdown. Parolees are supposed to leave their criminal past behind, not associate with unsavory elements, all that. Holden doesn't quite see the point — most of the guys he knew at the supermax are lifers, so they're not going to show up on his doorstep ever. In fact, most of his friends, going back to his days in junior high, are in jail or prison somewhere. But Holden isn't going to argue with the officer. Not this time.

Holden has a lot to figure out if he's going to complete his parole, a journey Westword is following in the blog series "I Shall Be Released" (see previous entries here ). But one of the most critical challenges is to live within the terms of his parole conditions -- to do what The Man says. This isn't as simple as it sounds. The 26-year-old has spent half his life in cells of one kind or another because the rules and Casey Holden don't always get along. His story is one of long periods of neglect and minimal supervision, followed by disastrous confrontations, during which someone tried to shove a bunch of authority down his throat all at once.

Holden remembers running wild around the streets of Colorado Springs while still in grade school. His parents had divorced, and Holden's father wasn't able to keep up with him. At thirteen he got thrown into a detention center for five days, the remaining 45 days of the sentence suspended if he cleaned up his act. He didn't. A series of group homes followed, none of which held him for long.

"I'd go home long enough to wash my clothes, then take off again," he recalls. "I started getting picked up for stupid stuff, shoplifting or being out past curfew. They really didn't keep up with everything I was doing. They'd put me on probation, and I'd never see my probation officer."

Nobody forced Holden to be a delinquent. He dug it. Well, certain parts of it. Like hanging out with his pals. "We were all pretty much fuck-ups," he says. "I was no big-time criminal, but that lifestyle, it's so easy. You have no responsibilities. You wake up when you want, hustle up some money, ride around and smoke pot all day. Then at times you're dead broke."

By the time he was sixteen, the charges were piling up. In 1996 he took a deal on an auto-theft case and ended up in the Division of Youth Corrections: Lookout Mountain's orientation program, then this private juvie operation in Ramah, Colorado, run by Rebound, a private company that later lost its contracts in the state after scandals at another juvie lockup. An altercation with a Rebound staffer led to more serious charges.

"I wasn't doing anything," Holden insists. "I was eating in the chow hall. Dude tells me to shut up and eat my food. But I wasn't talking. He says, 'You can go to the brig.' So I go. He comes in there and tells me to strip down to my boxers. I had a little attitude. He pushes me up against the wall. I push him. We kind of wrestle around. Then they all come in and tackle me."

Holden was soon facing nine years in the adult prison system for assaulting a corrections officer. That was suspended, on condition that he complete three years in the Youthful Offender System, Colorado's unique alternative to adult time for teen felons. He was in the last few months of his YOS sentence when he suddenly pulled the plug. "I ended up quitting my job like a dumbass," he says. "I knew I was gonna go back to prison anyway, so I just went on the run."

It was a short run. Picked up for speeding, no driver's license, suspected drug scale in the car, Holden was shipped off to the adult system to do the full nine years of his original sentence, plus one for escape. At the Sterling prison he got into another argument with an officer in the yard.

"He grabbed me, and I punched him four times and walked away," Holden says. "But the dude in the gun tower had an AR-15 pointed at my ass."

For the last four years Holden has been in solitary confinement. He's had plenty of time to think about the life of a fuck-up and where it took him, which is the Colorado State Penitentiary: "I don't care who you are — it's going to get to you. You're always locked down. You're never around anybody else. And you can do everything you're supposed to do, and you still don't progress to another prison like they say you will."

At CSP Holden took classes that are supposed to prepare him to deal with the world again, this time as a citizen. But going straight from CSP to the street has been wildly disorienting. "There is no class that will prepare you for being around people again," he says.

In moments of great stress and frustration, it's easy to yearn for his old criminal life again — weed, riding around, short hours — even though a trip in that direction would probably end up back in the oblivion of prison life, surrounded by the kind of people he's no longer allowed to write.

"They break you down in that place," he says, "but they don't build you back up." -- Alan Prendergast

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun