Category Archives: Andy Medina

From Inside Supermax: Part 2 of 8

This post is a continuation of a series of questions posed to and answers provided by Jacob Ind from inside Colorado’s Supermax. Read Part 1 here.

What kinds of things are allowed and prohibited in General Population that might surprise people? How does that differ in Ad-Seg?

Ad-Seg is like prison within prison and is radically different than the General Population. It is no exaggeration that compared to Supermax, G.P. feels like the streets. In Ad-Seg you’re locked in a cell 23 hours a day, five days a week and 24 hours a day the other two. We’re allowed our TVs, but that is about it to occupy our time. We can get three library books a week from the library, but those go very quickly. Those who are fortunate enough to receive letters get to occupy themselves with writing but for most, their lives revolve around TV.

In G.P. there is a plethora of things to keep ones self occupied. Recreation is very important and there is usually some kind of sports league going on and weight meets to prepare for. I played on a softball and volleyball team when I wasn’t training for the weight meets. There are also inmate bands who practice every night as well as informal tournaments inmates hold among themselves. Every night there are basketball and handball games, pinochle matches, and even nerds playing dungeons and dragons.

During the day, people can avail themselves of numerous opportunities. There are vocational classes which teach everything from web site building to carpentry and there are industry jobs which someone can take into the free world as a career. Most guys have their days full between work and recreation.

Hobbies are also real big with guys in General Population. It will never cease to amaze me when I see a big burly tattooed convict crochet pink teddy bears or hats and scarves. A hobby which is against the rules but highly popular is tattooing. I’ve seen tattoos done in prison with motors stolen from CD ROM drives which blow away a lot of work I’ve seen from the streets. Many a prison tattoo artist have gotten out and made a good living doing it on the streets. Some guys spend all day tattooing.

Life in General Population can be very rich and productive while time in Supermax is bleak and stale. With so much free time it would be an ideal environment to learn, but educational opportunities are scarce in CSP. Those who need a GED can work on that, but there is no secondary education and we are prohibited from taking correspondence courses – even religious ones. Ad-Seg is down time, which is why so many people deteriorate over here and drama queens rule. In G.P. most guys are too busy to waste time on worrying about who has problems and how they can try to bully everybody. In CSP the drama queens plot and scheme all day long on who has done something they don’t like and how if this guy, or that guy is killed and if these guys start enforcing some prisoner rule the system will somehow become better. It is an incredibly negative environment full of dysfunctional guys with nothing better to do than spread their misery.

How is a person able to earn his way from Ad-Seg back to General Population? On the Frontline special when Andrew Medina was profiled, we were told that he’d been there for five years and the authorities said he hadn’t made enough progress to be sent back into General Population.

One of the most aggravating claims DOC makes is that guys can “earn” their way back to General Population and out of Supermax. There is a level system in CSP designed to allow a person to be rewarded for positive behavior through more phone calls and visits but there is a limit to how far that goes. Theoretically, once someone completes all of his recommended rehabilitative classes and reaches Level 3 for three months, he will progress to the reintegration unit and, upon completion of that program, go back to General Population. However, there is no rule or policy that says the inmate has to be allowed to progress into the reintegration program. There are guys who have not had any write-ups for years, have taken their classes, and have remained at Level 3, who have been repeatedly denied movement into that program. Andrew Medina was a perfect example of that. He’s a quiet kid who is not mixed up in the drama queen bullshit so prevalent here. He behaved and complied with everything they told him to do, but it had no bearing on him moving out of here.

The Level system and the reintegration program (called the Pro-Unit), while it sounds good on paper, is a bureaucratic nightmare. The whole purpose of a Supermax prison is to contain the most dangerous inmates in a prison system, who cannot be managed at normal prisons. Once the inmate is no longer a danger, he is to be released [into General Population], yet in Colorado people are housed in Supermax far longer than necessary, at a tremendous cost to the taxpayer, for the most ridiculous reasons.

Inmates at Supermax start off on Level 1. This lasts one week as long as he doesn’t get any “Chron Entries”. A Chron Entry is a notation in a log of “inappropriate behavior”. Unfortunately, there is no definition of inappropriate behavior. It is whatever an officer feels it is. Sometimes it is a minor rule infraction like sliding a string to another cell to pass a magazine (called “fishing”) and other times it is behavior which violates no rule whatsoever. I’ve seen Chron Entries for talking too loud at night (most guys are up late anyway), for having a “bad attitude”, and my favorite, trying to dictate cell assignments (the inmate had the gall to tell a sergeant who was switching an inmate from one cell to another that a lieutenant had promised another inmate that cell). It’s one thing if an inmate violates a rule, but getting penalized for conduct there is no rule against and therefore we have no reason to think is wrong? That is, well, retarded. Uncouth, I know, but what other adjective fits?

Level 1 inmates don’t have their TVs and get one phone call and visit a month. Level 2 inmates get their TVs and get two phone calls and visits a month. It takes 90 consecutive Chron Free days to attain Level 3 and Level 3 is the highest Ad-Seg level. Level 3s get 4 phone calls and visits a month. It takes 90 consecutive Chron-Free days and completion of the rehabilitation classes to be eligible for the Pro Unit.

So this is how it works in practice. If I am caught passing a magazine, I have to spend at least 3 more months in Supermax. It makes me such a dangerous, vicious animal, I need to be locked in a cage and cannot be trusted to be around other people. And heaven forbid a few months later I break an unwritten rule like telling an officer what a higher ranking officer promised another inmate, and that makes me a crazed madman, undeserving of human dignity for yet another three months. What’s worse is that the exact same behavior which results in a Chron Entry can result in a loss of Level – all depending on how the officer feels at the time. So passing a magazine can brand me a rabid, foaming at the mouth monster for six more months (3 months to get Level 3 back, 3 months before being eligible for the Pro Unit). This creates a situation where people remain in Supermax, not because they are still a threat, but because they’ve been caught in petty rule violations.

The Pro Unit is even worse of a nightmare. The Pro Unit constitutes Levels 4-6 and is considered a program. In the Pro Unit, we can have limited human contact. This means getting kicked out of the Pro Unit is equated with refusing programs. Refusing programs places an inmate on restrictive privileges until he can get into a new program, which can take 4 months or more. On R.P. status an inmate can’t have his TV, use the phone, get materials from recreation like art paper or crossword puzzles, buy food from the canteen, etc. It also bumps the guy down to Level 1 so he has to start all over again.

Getting kicked out of the Pro Unit is extraordinarily easy. The stressful part is that you can get kicked out of the Pro Unit for having done nothing wrong at all. Your success is contingent upon other people’s behavior. I’ve been in the Pro Unit twice. The second time I was there I saw someone get kicked out for refusing to snitch on another inmate. He was playing cards with a guy when someone came up and sucker punched the other guy. It was all caught on tape and the cops even admitted they knew he had nothing to do with it but said if he didn’t tell them who sucker punched the guy, he would be kicked out of the Pro Unit. Now, they know who did it, and had him on tape doing it, they just wanted the guy to snitch him off. They wanted him to risk his life by becoming a snitch just to play their stupid game. So he was busted back to Level 1 and condemned to at least another 6 months (probably a year) of Supermax, not because he proved himself a danger, but because he didn’t want to endanger his life.

 

So, as you can see, staying in CSP has nothing to do with being a danger or a threat. They often keep guys in here who have long since ceased to be a problem. Getting out of CSP has far less to do with positive behavior than it has to do with working your way through a bureaucratic nightmare with multi-tiered review committees, petty games and playing the system.

 

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From Inside Supermax: Part 1 of 8

As I became interested in the cases of the juveniles sentenced to Life Without the Possibility of Parole (LWOP) in Colorado, I began studying the cases of the 46 juveniles still serving this sentence (the State of Colorado changed the law in 2006 and no longer sentences juveniles to LWOP; however, the bill changing the law did not allow retroactivity to be extended to the 46). I could not do this without learning about their crimes and their victims and the truth is, this is difficult to do and not feel pain all the way around. The first case I began studying was that of Jacob Ind. I lived in Colorado Springs, the nearest city to Woodland Park where at the age of 15, Jacob Ind murdered his mother and step-father. This happened in late 1992 and in our small city, the story was constantly on the television and in the paper. Jacob’s age, the circumstances of the crime and the allegations of years of abuse to Jacob and his older brother made this a sensational case. The judge in the case made it clear that her hands were tied and after hearing all of the evidence, she was deeply conflicted about the mandatory LWOP sentence she had no choice but to render. After seeing Jacob Ind on the Frontline special, “When Kids Get Life”, I read “The Murder of Jacob”, by Mary Ellen Johnson. The book provides a detailed history of Jacob’s family, his home life and the circumstances before, during and after the crime. Although the book was published ten years ago, not much has changed in Jacob’s life. If, after reading this series of posts you are interested in reading The Murder of Jacob to understand more about this case, please email me at lisa dot eudaemonia at gmail dot com and I’ll mail you a copy.

The Murder of Jacobjacob-ind.jpgjacob-ind-supermax.jpg

The purpose of this series of posts is to gain an understanding of how we’re handling the cases of juveniles convicted of very serious crimes and what happens to these juveniles once we’ve locked them up. I don’t pretend to have any answers, but my contention that juvenile LWOP and incarceration for juveniles in adult prisons is wrong remains strong.

This is the first in a series of posts comprised of a list of questions that I sent to Jacob Ind. I asked if he’d allow me to post the answers to any of them he wished to answer on this blog. Jacob doesn’t actually know what a blog is, but he understands the concept and realizes that anyone can read these questions and answers and even comment on them. Prisoners don’t have access to the internet and since he’s been incarcerated since 1992, he’s never used it.

I explained to Jacob that most of us have little or no understanding about the prison system. Because he was sent to prison for Life Without the Possibility of Parole (LWOP) at such a young age, Jacob understands prison culture better than he does ours. Because Jacob is now 30 years old, he has also spent more time in the prison system than most, if not all of the other juvenile LWOPs.

Jacob is exceptionally bright and articulate and I believe he understands that my intent in asking these questions is to get a feeling for not only what General Population and Ad-Seg/CSP/Supermax are like, but what it’s like to literally grow up in prison. I find his answers to be thoughtful, as balanced as they can be from someone in his position and a sad picture of what the transition into prison is like for a youthful offender.

Jacob has spent more time in Supermax than he has in General Population. Early in his sentence, he went to Supermax for a period of eight years. That means that he’s spent most of his incarceration in what I think most of us would call solitary confinement. Several months after the airing of “When Kids Get Life” on Frontline (I don’t believe he’s ever seen it), Jacob was returned to Supermax as a result of a comment he made during a lockdown at the prison in Limon that had been in effect for many weeks. Making the comment was a foolish move on his part and during the heightened security environment in the wake of an attack on a guard by a mentally ill prisoner, the result was a transfer to Supermax. He’s been there for several months now and I believe he is in the process of appealing the transfer.

My questions are bolded. Jacob’s answers are as he provided them to me; however, Jacob writes in all capital letters, so the choice to capitalize certain terms was editorial. Comments in brackets are mine also and have been added for clarification.

It seems to me that many of the juveniles who’ve been convicted and sent to adult prisons seem to spend extensive time in administrative-segregation, which I assume means they are confined to a cell, alone for 23 hours a day. From the outside, it looks like someone who would be subject to this punishment, must be a trouble maker and must have done something terribly wrong. Three out of the five Coloradans profiled on “When Kids Get Life” have done time in Supermax and in fact, you were there for eight years previously and now you’ve been sent back. Can you explain why people, especially younger people seem to spend so much time in Ad-Seg? We’re repeatedly told that CSP is where only the worst of the worst hardened criminals are housed. Hasn’t everyone there killed someone in prison or attacked a guard or tried to stage a riot?

It is actually a bold faced lie on DOC’s part to say that Supermax is for the “worst of the worst” and that they need so many Supermax beds. Colorado is a low violence state. Systems like California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, etc. have far more incidents of beatings, stabbings, rapes, and assaults on cops [note: when Jacob refers to cops, he’s referring to corrections officers], per capita, than Colorado. By comparison, Colorado is a “soft” prison system. Yet, when compared to other states, Colorado has a disproportionately high number of Supermax beds. It takes so much more money to run a Supermax Unit that they are compelled to keep it filled at all costs to justify the expense. As a result, they have guys in here who are here for protection instead of their danger to security (because Colorado doesn’t have a protective custody, some guys act up just so they can come or stay here and be safe) and guys here who, in any other state would never be Ad-Seged.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some legitimately scary people here. There are people in CSP for escapes, killing inmates, assaulting staff, rape, etc., but I know guys who have spent time here for absurd reasons. A perfect example is [name omitted]. He ended up in Supermax for sending a letter to [omitted] County Jail in which he called someone up there a “teller”. He said nothing of attacking the guy or anything like that and the letter wasn’t even delivered. For that he spent over a year locked in a cage like an animal and treated on par with guys who rape their cell mates or who kill others.

Most common, however, is for guys to be here for some ambiguous accusation of “Security Threat Group” (gang) activity. In Colorado anybody can be labeled as an STG member and it cannot be disputed or challenged. I had a friend they labeled as both a “Blood” and a “White Supremacist”. We all got a chuckle out of that because it is so ridiculous. “White Supremacist” is their favorite label for whites because it is so generic and easy to “prove”. If a white guy in here has any white friends, some are sure to be “racist” and that makes him guilty by association.

Mexicans and Blacks have it just as bad in some ways and easier in other ways when it comes to STG labels. The majority of minorities coming into prison belong to a gang so those who aren’t in a gang still end up making friends with mostly members of one gang type or another. That allows DOC to easily claim that they’re associates of that group, but because there are more formally organized gangs with minorities it is easier for DOC to identify true members and not just associates.

What is hard on the young minority kids coming into prison is that they’re expected to remain loyal to their gang and some of the older gang members are not above exploiting the youthful urge to be accepted and to fit in. Black youth seem to be better off than Mexican kids because the Nation of Islam has enough of a following in here that if a Black kid chooses to drop his gang for The Nation, he’ll mostly be left alone. The Mexican kids don’t have a group like that, so if they leave their gangs they do so without any support. Prison is a scary place and with all the other pressures on a kid, he is not likely to abandon his support group.

That is what gets most of the juvenile offenders in trouble and sent to Supermax. DOC has the view that if they go astray it will “send a message” and scare them straight. Instead of recognizing the vulnerable position the kids are in and taking steps to intervene and redirect the youth, they lock them away until they are more manageable. The first time I went to Supermax, the mantra was “you’re young and have life” to justify keeping me here for so long. It had nothing to do with behavior, they just figured that since I was young and caught with a piece of rebar that I would be a menace until I was older.

That’s the boat Andrew Medina was in. If it wasn’t for the new mental health program which sidestepped the draconian members of the review board, he’d still be there. [Andrew Medina was shown on the Frontline Special, “When Kids Get Life” in May of 2007. At that time he had been in Supermax for over five years. He has subsequently been moved to General Population in the Centennial facility in Colorado]. That guy took his classes and stayed out of trouble, but it didn’t matter. He was young, looks very young, and has life so he wasn’t fit to be released. DOC locks away its perceived problems instead of dealing with them. It is far easier to send kids to Supermax instead of creating programs suited for their adjustment to prison. It’s the same old prejudice that youthful offenders are “Super Predators”. The truth is that we were just like any other kids and, like all kids, were liable to get into childish mischief and stupid trouble, like mouthing off to cops [note: Jacob is referring to corrections officers inside prison, not to the crimes that got the youthful offenders there]. Juvenile systems country-wide manage to deal with it without resorting to Supermax prisons, but then again, juvenile systems are designed to deal with kids, adult prison isn’t.

Categorically Less Culpable

On February 13th, the Illinois Coalition for Fair Sentencing of Children released a new report, Categorically Less Culpable: Children Sentenced to Life Without Possibility of Parole in Illinois.

The Northwestern Law website has links to more information related to the report. The following is a summary of the coalition’s recommendations to the Illinois legislature:

– Pass legislation that abolishes the sentence of life without the possibility of parole for children

– Apply this new legislation retroactively

– Include victim notification provisions in any legislation passed

It’s interesting to note that the executive summary of the report notes that in 2006, Colorado outlawed juvenile LWOP outright. What the summary fails to note though is that Colorado failed to apply the elimination of juvenile LWOP retroactively.

This inequity has to be righted. Across the country, there is momentum to eliminate juvenile LWOP. In Colorado we’ve made some progress, but we have to continue to fight for retroactivity for the 46 inmates remaining for whom retroactivity was not extended.

If we believe LWOP is unfair for juveniles yet to be sentenced, it’s unfair to those already sentenced.

Colorado Governor’s Juvenile Clemency Board Application is Available

When I decided to start this blog, I told myself that the best thing I could do to participate in the dialogue about juvenile cases and juvenile sentencing would be to learn about the law, about the impending changes and about the cases, but I wanted to keep a distance from those who’d been convicted of the crimes. I thought that getting to know the human beings behind the newspaper articles and the case files and the sentences would be too difficult on an emotional level.

I’ve found that separating this issue from the people is not as easy as I thought it would be. The Frontline special, “When Kids Get Life” put five real faces and voices on Jacob Ind, Nathan Ybanez, Erik Jensen, Trevor Jones and Andy Medina. I read Mary Ellen Johnson’s book, “The Murder of Jacob” to learn more about his story. I’ve written and received two letters from Jacob, each exchange bringing me to a deeper understanding of who he is today and what his life is like. The Rolling Stone article about Nate Ybanez provided a far more detailed history of his story. I learned about Cheryl Armstrong on The Pendulum Foundation site and subsequently spoke with her mother.

Today I received a letter from Cheryl Armstrong and she has become very real to me. I will talk more about this in a future post.

When I began writing this blog, I had assumptions about how the judicial system worked, but I never understood how gray so much of what happens is. The cases that caught my attention are all high profile, highly publicized cases because of the age of the offenders and because of the nature of the crimes.

I’ve learned that the justice system and the laws that govern it can be profoundly impacted by politics, perceived public opionion and of course by the media.

I’ve learned that most of those who’ve been locked away as children have been largely forgotten. The lucky ones have one or two people who stand behind them and support them. The unlucky ones have been forgotten by even their families.

This brings me to the Colorado Governor’s Juvenile Clemency Board. It was widely publicized when in August of 2007, Governor Ritter established the Juvenile Clemency Board. It’s difficult for someone like me, without a background in politics or the law to piece together how these things work, but I’ve learned that each state governor establishes his or her own approach to clemency. Each new governor creates his or her own criteria, and each offender who is eligible may apply for clemency, which can result in a number of possible outcomes.

The new application and the criteria to apply to the Juvenile Clemency Board are available for download here.

If a prisoner is granted clemency, it may result in a pardon and immediate release. This is very rare. What is more likely is that a prisoner may be granted commutation of a long sentence, which may or may not result in release or conditional release.

This sounds good, but someone serving a life sentence may have his sentence commuted to forty years before possibility of parole. Forty years is better than life, but not much.

What are the chances that a clemency application might be approved? Nobody knows. Each board is newly formed and reinventing the wheel, so to speak. There are no precedents. There are lots of concerns about applying for clemency, especially about going first. Nobody wants to be a test case. Governor Ritter is a former Denver District Attorney. Is a prisoner who was convicted while Governor Ritter was the prosecutor less likely to be granted clemency than a prisoner who was tried by another DA? Jeanne Smith, a member of the clemency board is a former District Attorney for El Paso County. If she reviews a clemency application that she also happened to prosecute, would that have an impact on how that offender’s application for clemency is handled?

Offenders and their family members have to weigh many questions that have no clear answers. Is it better to wait to apply for clemency under a new governor if you were convicted by the current governor?

Is the risk of having a sentence commuted to a lower, but still excessive number of years too great to risk applying for clemency?

Most of the offenders are indigent and cannot afford to retain attorneys so these are decisions they’re left to work through on their own.

I was foolish enough to think I could become involved in this issue without allowing myself to care about these people who now are trying to determine how to approach an application for clemency. The sad thing is that I’m not qualified to help them. I don’t even know who can.

Victims and victims’ families have the opportunity to present information urging that the governor deny clemency during this process. Supporters of the offenders also have the opportunity to speak on their behalf.

I’ve scoured the internet and there is no paper or article that I can find that talks about the pros and cons and issues that an offender should consider prior to applying for clemency.

If you’ve got any thoughts or ideas about things the candidates for clemency should consider, please comment or email me.