“I don’t like prison; they have the wrong kind of bars in there.” – Charles Bukowski
“If you want total security, go to prison. There you’re fed, clothed, given medical care and so on. The only thing lacking… is freedom.” – Dwight Eisenhower
I stood silent, my eyes shifting nervously as I scanned the featureless cinderblock wall in front of me. Finally, the blue heavy metal door to my left began to slowly slide closed. Whirrrrrrrrrrrrr…ka-thunk! The finality of the sound was unsettling. A guard seemed to stare at me blankly. I didn’t need his stare to feel any more uncomfortable; after all, I was now locked inside the Colorado State Penitentiary.
The day before, I was approached by a coworker at my day job, Adam, with a proposition. “Wanna go to prison?” Adam asked. Ya know, as inviting as prison usually sounds, thanks but no, I’ll pass this time. Well wait, what exactly would get me into prison? Are we talking just your mundane multi-state spree of bank robberies? Or will this be some kind of Dr. Evil plot to take over the world? You have my attention if it’s the latter. None of the above–it was a pre-bid meeting for a couple of construction projects at the Colorado State Penitentiary near Canon (pronounced Canyon) City. No Dr. Evil sharks with freakin’ laser beams, buuuut, it was a chance to get out from behind my desk and do something unique, so I told Adam I’d go. I’ve always said I’d do anything once, and though going to prison never really crossed my mind as an “anything,” I’d make an exception in this situation. I filled out a couple of background check forms for the State so I could be allowed on the prison grounds, then agreed with Adam that I should leave early in the morning to minimize morning rush hour traffic when I passed through Colorado Springs on my way to Canon City.
I left my company’s office in Castle Rock promptly at 6:45 am. When I passed through Colorado Springs I discovered no one actually drives to work in that city. Perhaps I’m used to rush hours in Denver, which start Monday morning at 6 am and continue non-stop until approximately 3am Saturday. My false assumption of Springs traffic meant I was the first person in recorded human history to actually show up early at a prison. And I wasn’t just early, I was over an hour early. The prison is located in a complex of several separate prison facilities (including the infamous SuperMax) a few miles east of Canon City on a windswept and featureless desert just beyond the foothills to the Rockies. It was August, so even at 8 am there was no escape from the sun, which was already beating down on me. Rather than just sit there and watch the thermometer quietly climb to 140 degrees, I decided to take a few minutes to sight see. The little town of Florence was a short ten minute drive away; I had never been there and I enjoy checking out quaint and charming small Colorado towns. However, I soon discovered the reason Florence is rather obscure and off the beaten path is that someone forgot to tell the town that it should be quaint and charming. Somewhat creepy is my best description for it, and after five minutes of checking out its dilapidated buildings and its suddenly-abandoned-during-the-zombie-apocalypse vibe, I was on my way back to the much more inviting and comforting Colorado State Penitentiary. I was still half an hour early.
My meeting was held in the visitor center to the prison, located just outside the prison grounds. The first 30 minutes was spent going over project details, then all twenty of us contractors were driven around the prison grounds in two large passenger vans. The project was to be the construction of new guard towers and recreation yards, so we were given the ability to visit the areas and conditions where our construction crews would be working. While we drove around the facility, we could see inmates—oops, we were instructed to call them by the politically correct term “offenders”—the prison was paying to dismantle the existing perimeter fence. Obviously on some sort of work-release arrangement, I bet these offenders were very popular with their buddies inside for helping to make the facility a little less secure.
The meeting lasted about an hour, but there was a second meeting immediately after. This meeting was for phase two of the project—the reconstruction of a double electrical fence around the facility, which explained why the existing fence was being taken down. This project also called for replacing the security camera system and some other electrical work, much of which would be done inside the prison. That meant all of us contractors would be going inside the prison to tour the areas where our crews would be working.
Prison employees are surprisingly friendly and upbeat. Maybe working in a place with the dreary mission of housing people who need to be separated from the rest of society forces one to see the silver lining of virtually any situation. Whatever the reason, I’ve stayed at hotels with less friendly staff than the Colorado State Penitentiary. They were even cheery when our group of twenty contractors clogged up the prison lobby, slowly emptied our pockets, and made our way through the metal detectors like clueless morons in a TSA line who forgot to remove their shoes, their belts, and every other slightly metal object on their person.
Once our herd had finally made its successful way through the metal detectors and security, we were led into a room with blue metal doors at each end. This was the room described at the beginning of this blog. Once one is through security and into this room, the surroundings gives one an uncomfortable feeling that is difficult to describe. It could be due to the constant observation and close scrutiny of the guards. Or perhaps it is being in the close physical presence of offenders with swastikas tattooed on their shaved heads. I’m not sure.
If you use your imagination, the prison is in the shape of a clover. Each leaf is a two-story pod of several hundred cells arranged in a somewhat circular pattern. Connecting each leaf to the stem (where the front entrance, lobby, and main control room are all located) are long hallways divided into numerous sections with more of those blue heavy metal doors. The doors operate like locks in a canal; one door opens once the door at the opposite end of the section closes. This increases security, but it also greatly increases the time it takes to navigate through the facility. I guess if you’re spending 40 years in prison for armed robbery, you’re in no great hurry to get anywhere anyway. The guards would only allow four or five contractors at a time to see various rooms, so the remaining 15 of us would congregate in the hallways—also under guard—while we waited. During one such wait, another set of guards led an inmate—ooops, offender—through our section of the hallway. We were instructed to stand against the wall as they led the offender past us. The experience prompted a conversation between myself and two fence contractors I was standing near. We speculated that this was a minimum security facility due to the offenders outside disassembling the perimeter fence and the fact the offender that was just escorted past us was not in handcuffs or ankle chains. The prison maintenance director was with our tour, so as he made his way over to our conversation, one of us asked him about the prison’s security. He told us that while offenders of any security level may be in the facility, this was Colorado’s maximum security facility and where the state will send its most hardened criminals. I could see the color and any expression leaving the faces of the fencing contractors, and I’m sure the same was happening to mine. The only thought going through my mind at that moment was the guy they escorted past our group just moments before probably killed thirty people.
The next stop in our tour of Colorado’s maximum security prison for mass murderers, serial rapists, and homicidal maniacs was an actual pod of cells—one of the “leaves” of the clover-shaped prison. Inmat—offenders—in this pod were free to leave their cells and congregate in the common areas, which included tables with chairs and futons and TVs. They played cards at the tables, watched CNN on TVs, or just sat in groups talking and laughing. As we toured the pod, we were walking amongst them, who surprisingly were not very interested in our presence. I was not watching where I was walking, instead my attention focused on an electrical conduit pointed out by another contractor, and I almost collided with an offender crossing my path. “Oh, pardon, excuse me,” he said in a warm voice as he passed. It was surreal. If that was any indication, these offenders have better manners than many American tourists.
The shock of my first interaction ever in my life with a prison inmate was interrupted by what had to be the most boneheaded moment of the day, compliments of a fellow contractor. In the center of each two story pod is a two story guard room. The guard room on the second floor is accessible by an enclosed catwalk extending out from a stairway within the exterior wall, and suspended above the floor of the pod. Two contractors were looking up at the catwalk and a grate in its floor above them, which was about 3 to 4 feet square. “Ya know, they could get some of their prison laundry, start a fire below this catwalk, and probably smoke the guards out of the guard room,” one contractor said to the other. I slowly face-palmed. Offenders were walking around us within earshot. In my mind flashed images of a prison riot starting any moment now, thanks to the brilliant observation of my tour-mate.
Luckily, we were spared a prison riot that afternoon, and the guards led us to the next stop on our tour, which was the maximum security portion of the prison. In this area the offenders spend the vast majority of their day inside their cells. There are no TVs, no furniture, and no activity in this wing. So we had no interaction with offenders other than walking by an indoor basketball court where an organized game was being played. I spotted an offender with what appeared to be a swastika tattooed on his shaved head. I was ready to leave. Compound that with the noise of the inmates banging on their doors—apparently something they do when they know there are visitors present—and this is the by far the most unsettling wing of the prison.
Our last stop was in the basement of the prison, where the guards and maintenance personnel let us look at some mechanical and electrical equipment. This is relatively common with meetings like these, and I have learned to do my best to pretend to know what I’m looking at. I have a repertoire of interesting facial expressions that I use, including squinty eyes with a series of slight head nods, lifting my bottom lip and chin, and my patented “I’ve seen that thing a thousand times, whatever it is” blank stare. And of course I pay attention to what other guys look at and do, and then I look at and do those things too. For good measure, I make sure to go back at least once and pretend to look at something again. I was looking at one electrical box when another contractor walked up, took a hard look, grunted, and looking at something in particular inside the box, said, “I haven’t seen one of those damn things in twenty years.” Oh no, no one has ever actually tried to have a conversation with me about…whatever that thing is he’s looking at. I was trying desperately to ward off the deer-in-the-headlights look. So I said something disparagingly about how it’s the government and they do everything on a shoestring budget. I learned quickly in the construction industry that it’s highly popular with contractors to complain about anything and everything government-related. Other popular topics for small talk include guns, pick up trucks, beer, and football (but no other sports—and soccer doesn’t even count as a sport). “Boy you’re right about that,” the contractor said with a chuckle. “Sons of bitches can’t do anything right,” he added as he slowly walked away. Bullet dodged.
We finally arrived back at the prison’s lobby and main desk to sign out right at 1:45 in the afternoon. We had left our cell phones with security, and there is not a single clock to be found anywhere inside the prison, so I had no idea it was that late. My stomach had been complaining for awhile and now I understood why. Canon City was just a few miles away, so I could satisfy my ravenous hunger in no time…or so I thought. Everyone in Canon City drives like they are 85 years old. Apparently, the unwritten rule in town is to subtract 20 from whatever number is on the speed limit sign and the result is how fast you’re supposed to drive. On top of that, the town has a stop light approximately every fifteen feet. Their traffic lights mimic the damn prison doors—the moment the stop light you’re at turns green, the one at the next intersection turns yellow. So I slowly made. My way. Through Canon City. Until I finally. Found a Sonic. After passing what. Seemed like a. Half dozen McDonalds. I can’t stand McDonalds, so Sonic was at least a decent substitute for real food.
After I scarfed down my Route 44 feast, I hit the road and had just as much fun getting out of Canon City as I had finding lunch. After the last stop light, I was stuck behind two jackasses cars driving side by side in the two east bound lanes, both of which drove the exact same speed and took four miles to get to 65 mph. I’m not exaggerating—I kept track of every excruciating mile on our protracted odyssey to normal highway speed, because by this time I knew I was going to blog about this memorable day.
If you ever have a chance to go to prison, whether by choice or not, I’d advise against it. It’s a dreary place. However, one of the reasons I appreciate new experiences is that they almost always change my perspective or at least challenge my beliefs. The one pris—err, offender—who politely apologized for almost running into me made quite an impression on me and challenged many of the assumptions I held. The prison staff was also not what I was expecting. Amazingly friendly, warm, and helpful, they maintain an attitude quite the opposite of the vibe of their workplace. As a person that loathes structure and detests restrictions, what struck me most about prison was the stark contrast in these two areas to everyday life. It prompted me to consider what life must be like for offenders as they transition away from prison when their sentences end. The United States has a higher percentage of its population in prison than any other industrialized nation in the world (almost 1%, source available here), and eventually when most of these offenders are released back into society it’s often done without much counseling. Not all prisoners are sent to halfway houses or work release programs, so like being thrown into freezing cold water, the offenders are released from a highly structured and protective environment to an outside world where suddenly they need to fend for themselves. Where once they couldn’t even shower without supervision and a schedule, when released they are devoid of virtually any oversight or accountability. And without a doubt, life inside that prison is easier, safer, and better than what some of those offenders experienced before they were locked up and what many will return to after. What I saw that time I went to prison wasn’t Club Med, and I’m not advocating changes to the environment of prison. I’m beginning to understand, though, that we are setting offenders up for failure if we can’t slowly reintroduce each and every one of them to society and teach them skills to be successful outside of prison. Expanded work release programs and counseling, adding more parole officers, and establishing support systems for former inmates seems to me to be a hell of a lot better use of our money than continuing to expand and build prisons so that the rest of us can just ignore the problem in hopes that it goes away. Prison may be punishment, and it should be, but we punish our society’s potential when two-thirds of released offenders end up back in prison within 3 years (source here). Our current system, obviously, isn’t working. As of 2008, the states alone (not counting the federal government), spent almost $50 billion dollars on their prison systems (source), and in every state more was spent on prisons than on education (source). Troubling statistics like that won’t change if we do not take a more progressive and strategic approach to the prison problem.