'What's prison like? You were there for 10 years?"
"Ten years straight."
What the heck. To someone formerly incarcerated, I must sound like a child asking such questions. But I generally don't let that stop me.
"You've done 20?"
"Right." We were on our way to Fountain, on a family call.
"You did 10 straight, and you were in and out for another 10? And that was all for guns and drugs?"
"No guns. Just drugs."
His name was John, and as long as I kept asking, he'd keep answering. Taxi passengers with criminal backgrounds tend to be among the most interesting, courteous and articulate you can meet. Like John, they speak clearly with carefully chosen words and phrases, as if testifying before a judge. Of anybody, they seem the least likely to lose their composure or give in to violent or rash impulses.
"You don't want to risk going back to prison?"
"Never. I'm not going back."
When I was growing up in Illinois, prison was a faraway thing. There was Cook County Jail in downtown Chicago, or the legendary Joliet Correctional Center to the south. John's father had done time in Joliet, I'd learn.
"So what about prison do you dislike the most?" At some point, I'd progressed from childhood to late adolescence in my questions.
"What about prison do I dislike the most? The last penitentiary I was in was Fremont. And there was a murder there every week."
Not surprisingly, the Fremont State Correctional facility contests this assessment, with spokesperson Adrian Jacobson saying there was one criminal investigation for murder at the facility in the roughly six months John was there.
"Prisoners murdering prisoners?"
"Yeah. I mean every week. ... If you didn't have a job, they took 'earn time' from you, but you couldn't get a job because there wasn't enough, so I was on lockdown 23 hours a day."
"What did you do for those 23 hours?"
"I sat in my cell and read. Just about everything I could get my hands on. Didn't matter, but most of it was legal. Where people read books, I like having a collection of dictionaries. I'll read a dictionary like people read a book. I read law books like people read books."
John's status at Fremont as a de facto legal consultant to fellow inmates, or "jailhouse attorney," protected him from rape, he said. He was left alone.
He wrote letters to the newspaper from jail that I was able to examine later. John battled passage of 1985's "Mielke bill," which doubled Colorado's felony sentences, with painstaking statistical analysis that also tracked the leap (in one year) from $57 to over $171 million in costs to Colorado.
"On TV that's all I watch," he added. "Educational stuff."
His research was so persuasive it was used in debates in the Colorado Legislature. From the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility in Crowley, he wrote: Until Colorado comes to the conclusion that long-term prison sentences and the philosophy of our criminal justice system are enormously costly mistakes, this problem will continue to grow at an alarming rate.
"To me, education is the cornerstone of trying to slow this system down, trying to keep people out of prison, you know," he said. "I don't ever want my kids in there."
John wrote in favor of parole and "reformative, short-term incarceration." Studies suggest that more than five years of incarceration is counterproductive, depriving inmates of vital social skills needed to function productively in society.
He also excelled out of prison. With his second wife, Sandy, John worked behind the counter at Subway in the early 2000s. Their teamwork and customer service were so successful, Subway transferred them to other shops at risk of closing. His drug habit would get the best of him, however, and as a user, not a dealer, land him back in the penitentiary.
"This heroin thing," John told me, "has been such a problem. There's so much heroin in this town, you wouldn't believe."
But that's behind him, too. He said he earned two GEDs (under two different names) and a paralegal degree while incarcerated.
At another stage of our conversation, I asked, "What's your view on capital punishment?"
"Depends on the crime," he replied. "Now my whole thing has changed on capital punishment, because these machines they use for lethal injection have been failing, and these guys are laying on the deal for six or seven hours. ... We killed Gary Davis [in 1997]. That was the last execution we had. And Gary Davis was a decent guy. He was bad when he went in, then he got religion, and he actually straightened out a little bit.
"You gotta remember, anybody that gets a death sentence, it's an automatic appeal ... and so they sit there for 10 years .... 23 hours a day, lock-down ... you read your mail over a TV screen."
"They just turn you into a vegetable."
"Yeah. They just plan on killin' you, anyway."