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Imagine for a moment what it would take to resolve an issue inside a prison. 

In the outside world, you might ask to speak to a supervisor who could assist you. You could also send an email or call a customer service number and speak to a pleasant voice that tries to help you. If you can’t get your problem resolved, you could complain on social media.

Now, let me illustrate how it works in a Colorado women’s prison, where there is no internet access or even a computer on which you could create a professional letter. 

There is a law library, but they only allow you to prepare motions. The law librarian refuses to print letters, whether it’s to judges, attorneys or anyone else. There is a computer lab, but the computers are only for the IT essentials class. There are computers with re-entry resources and curricula, but their use is only permitted to prepare for release. 

An inmate is supposed to receive assistance from their case manager, but that doesn’t always happen for a multitude of reasons. Case managers have excessive caseloads and endless meetings, so many of them only focus on a small portion of their daily tasks including basic paper shuffling related to job/program assignments, earned time awards and penalty write-ups. They are also supposed to handle identification and requests for birth certificates, social security cards and a slew of written requests known as kites to staff from inmates. The sheer volume of their workload can be mind numbing. 

If you have a family that supports you financially, typewriters are available for purchase in the monthly catalog, but you may or may not receive it for several months, if at all. You can buy paper, envelopes, pens and stamps off of the weekly canteen, but you also need money to afford that.

I once had a problem with my time calculation. My sentenced time was not calculated properly, directly impacting my eligibility for programs, community corrections and my parole hearing schedule. Time calculation is a highly specialized field that requires extensive training because it involves a complex algebraic formula, with multiple state statutes and case law affecting the nuances. An office called the Time and Release Operations Division, or Time Comp, handles the day to day review of good time, earned time and other factors, but inmates cannot call the office directly. Any mail sent to the office in Canon City, Colorado, is automatically routed back to the facility case manager. It can be incredibly frustrating to know that something is wrong and to request help repeatedly and receive zero response. 

I asked my case manager for assistance, and his response was that I had “too much time to do to worry about it.”

I wrote the parole board as well as the judge in my case and petitioned various attorneys to help me understand why I never received credit for the time that I was confined pre-sentence even though the judge had granted it to me. For more than two years, I wrote multiple letters, explaining the situation. I’m neither uneducated or ignorant, but I was repeatedly ignored. It was demoralizing and dehumanizing. I couldn’t figure out a way to be heard because my voice didn’t matter even though I was polite, professional and persistent.

Fortunately, I’m also resourceful. Eventually, I decided I had nothing to lose and wrote a letter to the executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections. I had met him before when he visited my facility and had found him to be warm and engaging. I utilized my access as the pre-release clerk to type a proper letter, and my supervisor printed it out for me because inmates cannot print anything themselves. 

The office never responded to me directly, but I did get a resolution. Within a couple of weeks, my case manager called me to his office to tell me that my time had been recalculated. It could have been coincidence, but I firmly believe that my letter to the executive director sped up the process.

I never gave another thought to the issue after that. I had an explanation and a firm date to apply for transfer to community corrections. I was a writer for the prison newspaper, I helped facilitate re-entry, I was a peer education mentor for new arrivals, and I lived in the incentive unit. 

But one afternoon more than a month later, I was called over to the shift commander’s office during count time because I had misused state property to type the letter I had sent. The captain accused me of abusing my position and removed me from my job. I was also threatened with a write up for abusing state property and removal from both the incentive unit and the peer mentoring team. My supervisor got in trouble too. 

I was shocked and taken completely by surprise. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would be punished for typing a letter and advocating for myself. Isn’t that part of what rehabilitation should look like? 

I was shaking and in tears by the time I left that conference room. 

Perhaps my error was going to my assigned work assignment during COVID-19, perhaps it was that I refused to be kept in the box they wanted me in. We will never know what the real issue was, but it taught me why it’s critical to keep speaking up, to share our stories and educate the wider public on what prison can look like from the inside out.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

JoyBelle Phelan is a writer and also serves as writer relations associate at Prison Journalism Project.

She was incarcerated twice for a total of seven years and has also been in community corrections. She passionately believes that no one should be remembered for the worst decision they have ever made. She is using her lived experience to challenge the perceptions of what prison is like for women and what re-entry can look like. While inside, she was in various leadership and peer mentor positions, worked as the pre-release clerk and helped to develop and implement the re-entry unit program.

She was the first woman at La Vista Correctional Facility to be published in Colorado’s The Inside Report prison newspaper. She also has an essay published in the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition’s Go Guide about being successful on parole.