What I Learned in Supermax, a Guest Post from Mary Ellen Johnson

Mary Ellen Johnson met Jacob Ind a few months after he killed his parents at age 15. She’s the director of The Pendulum Foundation, which serves kids serving life. She alternately thanks and curses Jacob for providing entree into a world she never knew existed.

“Something went horribly wrong.”

Jacob’s letter arrived a week after Limon Correctional Facility had been abruptly locked down.

We’d heard some details. At Limon, where Jacob and many of the other young LWOPS are housed, there’d been a breakdown in procedure. A violent prisoner had been allowed to be alone with a female guard — and slit her throat. The woman survived but SWAT teams had been brought in and Limon was in a state of terror. Despite the fact that this was the lone act of a mentally ill individual, the entire facility was being punished. Visits canceled. Programs suspended. Privileges yanked. In addition to tasers, SWAT teams brandished rifles which were trained on prisoners who had nothing to do with the incident — and indeed vociferously decried it. Rumors flew. Prisoners were being ad-segged at the whim of out-of-control guards. It was payback time. We heard that unpopular or outspoken prisoners were being swept up in such large numbers that that there was a backlog throughout the system. Since Colorado has more control units/Supermax beds than the entire federal government, the tactics seemed designed to foster riots rather than prevent them. (We’re told 127 prisoners from Limon are now ad-segged throughout the system. Jacob was apparently only the first. And 6 months later Limon remains locked down.)

Then, Jacob’s letter.

And the cycle began again.

Jacob was back at Colorado State Penitentiary. Control Unit. Concentration Camp of the Soul. He had already spent nearly 8 years there: entering at 18 and emerging at 25. He had literally grown up in Supermax. We’ve all heard the propaganda — and it is propaganda — about control units. “You have to work your way in and work your way out.” Defense attorneys, prisoners, even former members of DOC tell a far different story. The charges that send you there can sound ominous — assault, gang affiliation, inciting a riot, but the reality is generally far more benign. Being labeled a member of an STG–Security Threat Group–will earn you a trip to the gulag. However, the way the rules are defined two people having an ordinary conversation can be labeled a gang. And, let’s face it. This is prison. It’s real tough to live in close quarters without interacting with gang members. “Assault” is what a C.O. determines it to be. Rules are interpreted and enforced by the guards and too bad for the prisoners. They have no rights. Sure they get a hearing before being officially consigned to an ad-seg unit, but the hearing is a pro forma exercise in the inevitable — the prisoner will be found guilty. And once prisoners are buried alive in CSP, they are left for years on end. (In fairness, that seems to be changing. A few new programs have been introduced that are trying to speed prisoners in and out of CSP. That may change once again when CSP II comes on-line, adding another 900 beds to Colorado’s system — 900 beds that must be filled.)

So once again, Jacob was consigned to a place reserved for, according to a DOC official, the “cream of the crap.” He was accused of “inciting a riot.” While those who had witnessed the incident defended Jacob — whose intemperate remark had been coupled with one uttered by another prisoner and attributed to Jacob –DOC would show no mercy. I knew that. The witnesses Jacob requested would not be called. A real investigation would not be launched. The hearing would be a sham. The proper paperwork would be filled out and filed, the prisoner would be found guilty and buried in the bowels of CSP. That’s just the way it is.

I was extremely disheartened by Jacob’s latest setback. And angry. Why couldn’t Jacob have kept his mouth shut? Hadn’t he figured out he was high profile and needed to keep his head down and his comments to himself? Knowing that tensions were running high, why had he deliberately added to the incendiary atmosphere? For someone so smart, Jacob was at the very least, guilty of mighty poor judgment. He’s no longer a kid. He’s an adult and he needs to behave like one. But he hadn’t and here we were. Nothing had changed. All the hard work we’d done over the last several years, culminating in a juvenile clemency board that would at least consider cases such as Jacob’s, was for naught. While the odds for any of our young lifers ever coming out are remote, we continue fighting for changes, and in Jacob’s case I’d nurtured that seed of hope. He’d served half his life behind bars. He’d endured fifteen years of childhood terror. Surely, he deserved some mercy.

At least I’d hoped.

In vain, it seemed.

I know what the critics will say. “Two trips to CSP? He’s proven he’s a bad risk. He can’t be rehabilitated.” Perhaps. Reality is a bit more complicated. Sometimes a flawless prison record just means the inmate is an expert manipulator. Child molesters often adapt quite well to prison, thank you, and yet we all know the recidivism rate of pedophiles. And I’ve witnessed some smooth-talking prisoners on the inside and seen some former prisoners on the outside that said all the right things and did all the wrong. How do you weigh the actions of someone who’s grown up inside? We have entered new territory — younger kids serving longer prison sentences in harsher circumstances. How does the sentence of life without parole scar the soul of a 15-year-old? Because these kids are thrown in with predators and rapists the minute they’re convicted, do we have any moral obligation to improve their circumstances? Keep them separated until they’re grown? Offer any sort of counseling or life lessons about how to survive in the joint? Incorporate the latest scientific research about brain development in monitoring their behavior and “cutting them some slack?”

Obviously not, because it’s not being done.

When a prisoner is placed at CSP he works his way through in stages. After approximately 90 days the prisoner should be at level 3, which means he can have one 3-hour visit per week. I saw Jacob for 2 hours before Christmas, when he was at Level 2. Beyond that, it took me a while to set aside my anger and my expectations, pack up my dreams, put them away for the time being, and just deal. It was so hard. I just didn’t want to do this any more. It’s like a bad marriage. Despite your best intentions, you keep making the same mistakes over and over and over again, reacting the exact same crippled way to the exact same situations and nothing ever changes except the relationship becomes ever more poisoned and the principals that much more wounded. I dreaded the thought of marking time in crowded waiting rooms until we’re all herded onto buses which drop us off at individual facilities where we wait yet again before being escorted to visiting rooms the size of a phone booth. Then sitting through awkward visits behind glass with lousy acoustics, while each of us, not knowing whether our conversations are being monitored, carefully choose our words. I dread hearing Jacob’s ankle chains rattle every time he shifts his weight on the iron stool that is bolted to the floor .

I’m getting old and I’m getting mighty tired.

Months before the unthinkable happened, Jacob had said, “I don’t think I could survive another trip to CSP.”

Yet there he was and here we were.

Back at the beginning.

Not quite.

Life does have a way of working out. Tempers cool and you learn to live with situations and circumstances that you would have previously considered unbearable. The truth is I’m not the one locked away in a tiny cell for years on end. I go on about my life pretty much as before. Jacob’s the one doing the hard time. And, after the first few days of shock and despair, my friend’s natural optimism returned. He saw good in a bad situation. “I did have an attitude problem,” he says. “I wasn’t forgiving of others.” And his faith, which has carried through some mighty bleak times, re-emerged.

Sometimes Jacob amazes me. How can he remain so positive? How can he smile and laugh and go cheerily about a life that has been compressed to the parameters of a 6′ x 9′ cell? Yet he remains thoughtful, interested in events and in things around him.

So, if Jacob remains his basic positive self, what’s MY problem?

During my most recent visit, Jacob reflected on his second round at CSP. He mused upon the man he is now as opposed to the boy he was then. One of the advantages of a shrunken world is that the markers are fewer and loom larger. It’s easy to measure progress or the lack thereof. Supermax hasn’t changed — but Jacob has. He measures those changes by his reactions to guards and fellow prisoners. Many of the dramas that once commanded hours or days of his attention now pass him by. He views the ebb and flow of life at CSP — the gossip, pettiness, tantrums, indignities, kindnesses and joys — differently. In a world which offers so little, he’s learned to savor the smallest things — an interesting phrase in a letter, an unusual dream, a deep conversation, an insight during prayer, a favorite dish, the glimpse of a sunset through the slit of his window. He doesn’t seem to mourn what he’s lost but rather focuses on what remains. We who have so much on the outside are grateful for so little. We’re spoiled, selfish, and demanding.

Visiting Jacob I’m reminded.

And I’m grateful for what he’s teaching me.

I am a very slow learner. The older I get the more I realize how little I understand life. I have learned one thing though. The human condition — or at least the American condition — seems to be, “I will be happy if…” If I double my salary. If I lose 10 pounds. If I have a child. If my child would just behave himself. If my spouse were kinder, more assertive, less controlling, smarter, dumber, taller, shorter, fatter, thinner, younger, older, blah, blah, blah.

Once a year I try to read that most quintessential of American novels, The Great Gatsby, partially because it speaks to that incandescent yearning for things that never were. I think of Jay Gatsby, standing at the end of his dock, watching the green light across the bay, raising his arms as if to embrace the object of his illusion. It’s not the woman with the voice of money and the heart for sale to the highest bidder that so intrigues Gatsby. It’s the idea of her. The striving for something beyond our grasp, the belief that we’ll be happy when… We seem never to understand how broken our dreams are, for Fitzgerald and for Gatsby, and for each one of us. We don’t understand that what we’re seeking can never be found across the bay or even beyond prison walls. We embrace the future and weave our fantasy worlds and seldom live in the present — whether that present is in a Supermax cell or a million-dollar living room. And, like Gatsby “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

A past that, in Jacob’s case, leads him inexorably to his crime and to his prison cell. And yet, while Jacob’s green light is not the idea of a woman but the idea of physical freedom, he is sometimes content in the moment and he is sometimes grateful and he is often self-aware.

Which is more than we can say about Gatsby or most of the rest of us.

So, as Jacob and I beat against the current once more, we’ve both learned. I’ve learned that Jacob’s journey is not mine and that I can’t make everything all right by fighting the system. Fleetingly I even understand that everything is fine and there’s actually nothing to fight, and that the freedom we’re both striving for is the freedom of the heart. And as I watch Jacob struggle against great odds to maintain his humanity, I’m reminded of how much he’s taught me.

And that I still have much to learn.


9 responses to “What I Learned in Supermax, a Guest Post from Mary Ellen Johnson

  1. Well, the guy did kill his parents… I don’t know where to stand on this one. On one hand he was just a boy when he did it, but on the other, he snuffed out two people’s lives. Should he be able to enjoy life after committing such a horrific crime? I don’t know the answer to that. But i do know that prison is a billion dollar business!!

  2. I don’t know the answer either. Thanks very much for taking the time to comment.

  3. Thank You for fighting for these kids. People are too quick to judge a person who has committed a crime. Their life is like a book, “You need to read the entire book in order to understand the story.” My daughter’s had many friends that I’ve watched grow up and in time ended up in prison. One in particular was like a son to me, ended up with 48 years plus 16. He too was involved in the riots. He plugged up a toilet and received an additional 10 years. You can read his story in Westword. http://www.westword.com/2001-11-08/news/this-thug-s-life/ .
    After he was charged I did so much research on Colorado Laws and The Prison System. It didn’t help, it educated me for March 7, 2006. My 18yr-old daughter gave a friend a ride home, he asked if they could go by a friends. He forgot to mention it was to be a drive-by. She received a 2 year sentence. I still can’t believe my daughter is in prison. Three months before this crime (December 2005) she was five months pregnant with twins, sad to say but they were born premature. I know that she was not in a normal state of mind . A year later she was in prison without any type of counseling. She’ll be home in May. I’m lucky.
    Once again THANK YOU!!!!

  4. Augusta, Thank you for commenting and thank you for the link. What a sad story for the babies, your daughter and you. I hope that May will bring new beginnings for all of you.

  5. Punishment by abolishing a man from the freedom of society is one thing.

    However, it seems what is done at a super max goes beyond removing a man from society, and borders on torture.

    It appears to be presented to the public (as so much is today) for reasons of public safety.

    I am very sure that safety and human compassion can be devised in a prison setting.

    A larger cell, a window with a view, blue skies, birds singing, in-depth education, and all the books they desire to read do not give a man back freedom, but may keep his sanity and understanding intact.

    Not all prisoners are lifers many will be out on the streets again. You and I the common person may work, and live with ex offenders. I would like that ex offender to know I am part of a decent and compassionate society.

    I would like to think that the unwritten rules in prison are not so similar to conventions of the general free society.

  6. I have spoke to both Mary and Jacob many years ago. I have read the book, the articles, etc. This is a sad case. I guess it must be hard to look past the fact on WHY his mother and step-father were murdered…fear, sexual abuse, emotional, etc. I am not making excuses people just get scared, desperate and they just want it to stop. After all these years, one thing still seems to be true and so awful, our children are not important. It is okay to sexual, physically and mentally abuse your children and when the state doesn’t help you – you help yourself and you not only have to deal with all that happened to you, but you get to deal with the consequences. Also, his attorney was a TOTAL POS who has not been practicing for MANY years. He went to SH** after this case…lost his wife, he is just a REAL POS!


  7. For Those who are not aware. Jacob Ind is a White Supremacist and has been for years. He signed a petition featuring an offenisve stereotypical drawing of an African-American male to have the Jena Committee abolished simply because it’s an interracial organization. Is this who we want roaming the streets so he can terrorize minorities and verbally attack the “mud people”on social media he believes in his warped mind that he’s superior to? I used to respect Jacob until I learned of his bigoted degeneracy. He’s not fit to live among civilized diverse men and women who are pro racial harmony. Just saying.

  8. Bonita — this is me (Lisa) coming out of blogging retirement to confirm your comment. I have not touched this blog, nor have I been in contact with Jacob in almost nine years, but some time back I did run across some of Jacob’s white supremacist views and I came to realize who I was dealing with. My point in establishing this blog was not to make a case to free Jacob Ind. It was to explore the issue of juvenile justice and sentencing. I find the white supremacists as repulsive and dangerous as all decent people do. I don’t know what views about race Jacob Ind and his family held before the murders, but I do know that racial segregation is a fact of life within the prison system and whether he holds those views today I don’t know, but it’s likely that he does. I’ve silently watched a lot of comments fly by over the years but yours struck a nerve with me and I wanted to comment, validate what you said and clarify that like you, I too condemn white supremacy and live my life daily to champion equality. If you look at the post at the landing page of this blog, it sums up my whole experience in researching this topic, engaging with offenders and with their victims’ loved ones and you’ll know why I stopped. In the time since I started this blog and now, one of my primary drivers was overturned by the supreme court and juveniles are no longer subject to the life without possibility of parole sentencing; however, that does not impact those already sentenced. Those people and those cases all need to be addressed individually. Although the sentencing was the reason I became involved in this issue originally, I learned that this is not a sentence that’s rendered lightly and all the convicts I research who’d received it were involved in heinous crimes. Can Jacob or any of them receive redemption? Possibly, but redemption and forgiveness don’t mean freedom. Whether a convict arrives in prison as a dangerous person to society or whether he becomes one by being there, some of them will always be too dangerous to be freed.

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