I Am Ahab

Writing from Prison

by Todd Newmiller


Originally published in Newspeak, January 2008

Tuesday, January 22, 2009


Greg Oden’s birthday today. Also today, Tim Masters was ordered released from prison.


On the one hand, Master’s release creates a modicum of hope that the unlawfully convicted can (eventually) escape the malevolent churning of the Machine. On the other hand, his release points to the tremendous shortcomings of the system.

After more than 9 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, a crime that he obviously could not have committed the way the prosecutors in the case imagined, after exhausting his appeals, it took new evidence of a possible alternate suspect (found by his defense team) for the courts to finally set him free.


In the state of Colorado, we have a legal system that either cannot or chooses not to reverse convictions on the basis of obviously wrong outcomes. It seems to be simply not enough to be innocent of the crime to receive post-conviction relief, only procedural error is good enough to set free the wrongly convicted.


Meanwhile, I ponder the police and prosecutors who railroaded Masters into prison, people who were, at best, grossly negligent in the performance of their duties. Frankly, a kind of de facto conspiracy exists in which police and prosecutor’s present evidence in a way consistent with the prosecution’s theory of the case, rather than in a way that accurately and dispassionately reflects the facts. When this kind of de facto conspiracy convicts the innocent, it amounts to kidnapping.


In Master’s case (sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole), the conspiracy of police and prosecutors amounts to kidnapping and attempted first degree murder. The legal standards for behavior shouldn’t change just because the perpetrators wear badges or titles. Police and prosecutors (and jurors) should understand that robbing a fellow citizen of his freedom is not something to be done lightly or precipitously.


Monday, February 4, 2008


"Boots" is my favorite hillbilly. Really, it’s not fair to call him a hillbilly, but when you’re from Arkansas and you find yourself in a Colorado prison, that’s just what happens. He earned the "Boots" moniker in county jail, when he got in a fight with someone and ended up kicking and stomping his opponent while his feet were clad only in shower shoes.


With a love of reading, a pronounced sense of honor, and a profound disdain for ignorance, Boots is, nonetheless, a bonafide hillbilly. He reminisced about his preferred method of breaking in a new pair of jeans, by draping the garment over barbed wire and blasting it with a twelve gauge. "ANTISOCIAL" is tattooed in about four inch letters across the top of his back. He’s a good guy.


One day, as we sat in the chow hall, one of my compatriots was bothered by whatever the guards were doing. My back was to them and I was oblivious, as usual. "What the hell are they thinking about?" was the question from my annoyed companion. I mused, "You know, I would hope that, if I ever found myself in an automotive manufacturing plant, that I wouldn’t concern myself with what the robots building the cars were thinking." Boots liked this a lot. "Todd, you ougtta write that one down," he said as we walked back to the unit. Consider it done.


Another time, out on the yard, I walked into a conversation that Boots and another guy were having. These two men, both of whom have served years in prison, both with some degree of violence in their background, were discussing the inappropriateness of corporal punishment. "I think that it was wrong the way my parent used to whup me," Boots was saying, "If I ever have a kid, I don’t think I’d hit ‘em."


Boots got out a few months back, headed back to Arkansas. The bus drops you off at the Colorado border with a check for $100 and 48 hours to check in with your parole officer at your destination. Good luck.

"Myths perpetuate conflicts by effectively denying the rights of the other side and by brooking no compromise on what is treated as an article of faith."


-Dennis Ross, State Craft


Portrayed and sometimes labeled as antisocial personalities, or criminally defiant, or as monsters, who are the men that fill our prisons? Our system does such an effective job of isolating its prisoners from the rest of society that most of us truly don’t know. I didn’t know.


What I have found is group of men who are unruly, sometimes devious, occasionally violent, but mostly remarkable for the humanity and honor that they retain in the face of oppression. True, I have encountered a few guys I would describe as genuinely sociopathic. Interestingly, those tend to have shorter sentences, the ones that will get back out into the community and commit more crimes, guys who are serving life on the installment plan. These are men that get away with their most heinous crimes.


But the vast majority of the population here looks and acts like any population of mostly young men. They gamble and they fight and they tattoo because they are young men and because there’s nothing else to do. In some respects, prison is probably not unlike a disorderly version of a military barracks, a group of people held subservient to the whims of a bureaucracy that’s supposed to represent them, trying to retain their humanity and make the best of difficult circumstances over which they have no control.


You can call them whatever you want, you can project all of the worst elements of your own nature on them if you so choose, but you cannot take away their essential humanity. To the extent that our legal system dehumanizes both crime victims and the accused, it lies to itself and to the people it’s supposed to represent.


"Reconciling myths is impossible; discarding myths, then, is the challenge."


-Dennis Ross, State Craft