This is the story of a Black man from Denver named Stan, who has spent much of his life in prison for crimes he admits to committing in order to obtain money for drugs. Right now, Stan is an inmate at the Colorado State Penitentiary in Cañon City.
He wants to share personal information about conditions at the penitentiary during the COVID-19 pandemic, because he believes the public should have insight as to what life in prison is like for the humans who are unfortunate enough to be confined there, and how his faith has helped him deal with the challenges of years of incarceration.
Stan grew up in a close-knit neighborhood in Denver and often attended a local church along with his mother and sister. During his most recent incarceration which started in 2013, Stan began to correspond regularly with members of the church, including volunteer leaders with our community organization, Together Colorado. He has written numerous detailed letters to us.
Prison life is difficult during “normal times,” however, it has become even more so during the pandemic. His description of the situation at the prison matches those of inmates at other institutions in Colorado: Prisoners unable to properly social distance; inadequate personal protective equipment; smaller, non-nutritious meals; guards being assigned to kitchen duty; inmates being confined indoors for long periods of time; and most importantly, inadequate medical treatment, a longstanding problem exacerbated by the pandemic, with high rates of COVID-19 infection and death.
The psychological impact on those confined in such conditions is severe.
In his Christmas card Stan wrote, “Like the other men in here, I’m trying to shake this virus. No way of getting away in here, especially the way they move us around: positive with negative and so many of the staff being infected and not staying home when they get sick.
“What with this virus, 2020 and 2021 have been tough years. The Prince of this world (a Biblical refence to Satan) has worked overtime to do his level worst to separate us from the love of God. I’m proud to say that he has not succeeded. Even though we haven’t been able to fellowship at church, and this has perhaps been the most difficult part of this time, we can still count on the God of love.”
(During pre-COVID-19 times, volunteers came to the prison on a rotating basis to conduct Sunday services for the inmates.)
A further disruption of prison life during the pandemic has been the restriction on the routine of daily work, for which inmates are paid a miniscule wage. Motivated by his faith, Stan would set aside a portion of his meager earnings to make a small monthly donation to St. Jude’s Hospital for Children, bringing to mind the biblical story of the poor widow and her two mites.
In all, conditions at our state prisons are deplorable. Those who are confined there are human beings, regardless of the crimes they may have committed.
The use of the word “may” is intentional, since those who are charged with an offense sometimes accept a plea bargain for a crime they didn’t actually commit, rather than risk a far more severe sentence by going to trial and being found guilty.
The state penal institutions are operated by the euphemistically titled Colorado Department of Corrections. We may wonder how much “correcting” can be accomplished under current conditions which many argue are in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution which states, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishment be inflicted.”
The legal penalty for the commission of a crime may include incarceration, but it ought not include subjection to dangerous and potentially deadly living conditions. Implicit in the subjection of confinement by the state is the obligation to provide adequate care, and if we are truly serious about the term “corrections,” rehabilitation as well.
While our organization advocates for measures that will reduce the prison population, we also believe it is a moral imperative that those who are incarcerated have human dignity. However, due to the fiscal restraints imposed upon Colorado by its Constitution, the state is unable to adequately provide the services necessary for those under its supervision. The arduous task of fiscal and criminal justice reform lies ahead.
Stan, a confined human being, thanks you for your interest and concern.
Sharon Bridgeforth is the president of Faith in Colorado and community leader with Together Colorado. Mike Kromrey is the Executive Director of Together Colorado. Both live in Denver.