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Aerial view of Colorado State Prison
Aerial view of Colorado State Prison (Credit: Google Maps)

We were supposed to come out of our cells today. 

It would have been only my third time leaving my cell to spend time in my prison unit’s common area, and I’ve been here for three months.

I didn’t even bother to gather my things to come out; I knew what would happen. The only people who had left their cells today were two gentlemen housed on the tier below me, and they got in a fight with each other. 

Naturally, the ensuing altercation meant we will be locked in our cells for another … well, there’s really no telling.

A most violent place

This is my second time being in Colorado State Penitentiary, a level V maximum security prison, which has been referred to as the most violent prison in the state. The prison is designated as an administrative segregation facility, which means that nearly everyone incarcerated here is in solitary confinement.

During my first stint at Colorado State Penitentiary, I saw death within a month of my arrival.

I watched four men viciously stab another man, not even 3 feet from my cell door. His screams did not sound human. He thrashed hopelessly in panic, reaching toward the corrections officers who stood safely outside the pod behind plexiglass windows. 

The officers did what they could to stop the attack. They shot non-lethal ammunition through a small slot in the door, shouting commands at the attackers to stop. It was not enough to save the man. 

Plenty of corrections officers won’t put their own lives at risk to save us. Not that they should, but it’s a sobering realization.

I’ve returned to this prison for a second time because I was caught with a shank in my last facility. I had it for months and never used it. But, I had it. I knew the risk of getting caught with it. I knew the risk of getting caught without it. The risk of the latter seemed more severe.

At Colorado State Penitentiary, we don’t come out of our cells often because of the frequency of violent incidents, along with the shortage of staff. And the staff are transient, to say the least. 

“I’m actively looking for another job,” one corrections officer told me, when I asked him what it’s like to work here. “I hate watching how you guys live. And the shit I’ve seen y’all do to each other is crazy!” 

I asked him what made him want to work here in the first place. 

“My dad was in prison,” he said. “I guess I thought I could help or, I don’t know, make a difference?” He said it like a question. It seemed to me he wasn’t sure why he ever thought he could make a difference here. 

Built to survive

I envy the free, but I can’t dwell on that. I’m too busy surviving this dangerous prison. There’s a certain way I carry myself when I am out of my cell and around fellow inmates. It’s a balance of being humble and daring, amiable and standoffish. 

I wear a smile and speak respectfully. The smile doesn’t quite reach my eyes, however, which are often set in a way that communicates I will gladly die before I allow these men to disrespect me. It’s not who I am. It’s who I must be.

The majority of the time — six days and 22 hours a week — I am alone in my cell, left to explore the furthest reaches of a labyrinthine mind. I write, I read, I exercise, I think, I think, I think. Then, I turn on my TV when I find myself becoming not only a prisoner of the state of Colorado, but also a prisoner of an increasingly bleak state of mind. 

Sometimes, I don’t watch TV as much as I use it to keep me company. Maybe you can relate? Did the COVID-19 lockdowns have you trying to escape your own mind as well?

I’m worried. It’s easy to become jaded because of the life I’ve lived. It’s easy to become bitter, self-absorbed and detached. I find myself laughing at the wrong things. My mind has flirted with thoughts darker than a moonless night.

And yet, in spite of it all, I’m blessed with an inherent ability to recenter myself. Can you relate? Do you find that you somehow press on by way of a latent strength that’s never-ending? 

We’re built like that, you know. The only way we can be defeated is if we give up. Sometimes, we give up for a season. But if you’re reading this, you’re not done.

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.

Robert Turner is a writer incarcerated in Colorado.