In case you want to get someone’s attention, try this: “Let me tell you about my time in the Colorado State Penitentiary in Canon City.” Works every time, I can assure you. I’ve tried it. Actually I did put in my time in the penitentiary. Spoiler alert: It only lasted for an evening, but it was certainly illuminating; and, in retrospect, somewhat puzzling. The story goes like this:
I partnered with my best friend in high school, the late Richard Gould, in publishing a citywide summer newspaper and magazine for Denver youth. The newspaper, The Inquirer, appeared the summer between my junior and senior year, and between Dick’s sophomore and junior year. The magazine, Tempo, appeared between my senior year and college, and between Dick’s junior and senior year.
We made quite a splash. A lot of readership and a lot of media coverage. Not just in Denver. It went all the way up to Time magazine (July 3, 1964), which was much more prestigious then than now.
I guess the prison authorities heard of us. They had this idea that we could be good role models for the prisoners, and invited us down to Canon City to address them. We agreed, though we had no idea what this would be like, or even what to say. But it did sound like a mitzvah, for sure.
We had written about student drinking, school integration (and the lack thereof), the inequities in equipment and training in teen sports at upper class vs. lower class high schools, “A Teenage Question: Who Am I?” — the serious topics of the day. As I say, the authorities thought we would have something to say to the prisoners.
I don’t remember how we got from Denver to Canon City and back, but I’m almost certain this took place on Friday night. That meant spending Shabbos in Canon City. As for the stricture not to carry on Shabbos, not to worry! You weren’t allowed to bring a thing but yourself and the clothes you were wearing into the penitentiary.
Multi-levels of prison doors clanged shut behind us, one after the other, duly locked by multiple guards as we proceeded inside. Yes, we were in the penitentiary.
We were taken to what appeared to some kind of social meeting room. No bars were evident. It seemed like a rather friendly setting, though the expressions on the faces of the prisoners were invariably grim. This was the state penitentiary — people here were not incarcerated for lesser crimes and shorter sentences.
For whatever reason, there was no fear factor, though it was certainly spooky to hear the jailhouse doors locked behind you. Spooky — and revelatory. We could empathize how horrible it was to be locked up, even if for us it was only temporary.
We were duly introduced and our publishing exploits were described. Apparently, the prisoners had been briefed beforehand about our appearance and told that they might gain something from it.
These grim faces were eager to hear something that might give them hope for when they got out.
So, Dick and I had to talk.
What to say?
Neither Dick nor I had the slightest connection to the criminal mentality and had no idea how to relate to these people on their wavelength, though as we would find out, this wavelength was somewhat different from we figured it would be.
Still more, every one of these prisoners was much older than we were. I was 18, Dick was 17. Maybe this was the perfect mismatch. It didn’t turn out that way.
Duly untrained in criminality or criminal justice, we didn’t touch on that. We spoke about what we had done. Our publications. What motivated us. How we made it happen. How we raised the funds. How we found the time while carrying a full load in high school. And, to an extent, what we wrote about. But what we actually wrote was less important to them than how we made it happen — how, from their point of view, we made something of ourselves.
When we finished is when it got interesting.
A lot of time was left for questions and answers. I was more of a public speaker than Dick, so I made the initial presentation. Dick was thoughtful and careful in responding to the questions.
Some prisoners rued their youth, rued their mistakes, admitted them openly, wished they had done something like we had done; and took strength, or so they said, from hearing what we had been able to do by going straight. We were living reminders that their world could have been different; and, some day, it could still be different.
Some prisoners said they were still slated to be incarcerated for a very long time to come. For them, it was simply a brief refreshing moment to hear from two kids starting out, or simply hearing two kids altogether.
I don’t know what the rules were back then for how long visiting hours could extend, but I imagine they typically didn’t extend to a couple of hours in the evening, and I imagine they didn’t entail a whole group of prisoners in human interaction with people from the “outside.”
I imagine the group we met was self-selecting. I doubt anyone was forced to come. Perhaps twenty to thirty prisoners were present. People of all races and ages. Perhaps these were the prisoners who were most deeply troubled by their conscience and most willing to see some possibility of a different, affirmative path forward. Their openness was surprising and compelling. They had nothing to gain by how they spoke to us.
We weren’t going to be issuing any reports to the parole board.
We felt very good afterward about what we had done. Strange as it sounds, it was actually a profound human experience, certainly a candid one, and certainly empty of any degree of artificiality or superficiality. Truth to tell, however, we didn’t know, and had no way of knowing, whether we did any good. We never heard from any of these prisoners again, not that we expected to.
The prison authorities treated us with dignity and thanked us graciously for coming. One could almost think this was a social visit. And that was what was puzzling. What exactly were the prison authorities thinking by inviting two teenagers to address people who had committed heinous crimes? I’m pleased to say: I have none of the expertise needed to answer that question . . and have never had a Shabbos like that again.
Copyright © 2022 by the Intermountain Jewish News