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Fear fracture 

Local prisoner's misdiagnosed injury casts a pall over boot-camp accolades

click to enlarge Joelene Hartman, right, gave birth to Autumn a year ago, - just months after she started a 10-year prison sentence. - She had hoped completing boot camp would speed her - reunion with Autumn, who now lives with Joelenes - mother, Judy Thurlow, in Colorado Springs. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Joelene Hartman, right, gave birth to Autumn a year ago, just months after she started a 10-year prison sentence. She had hoped completing boot camp would speed her reunion with Autumn, who now lives with Joelenes mother, Judy Thurlow, in Colorado Springs.

Prison boot camp is just like what you see in the movies, Joelene Hartman found. Drill instructors in "Smokey" hats bark at you from the moment you arrive, calling you worthless, lazy and worse.

If you march out of step or miss an order, they make you do push-ups. Glance the wrong way? More push-ups.

They make you run everywhere, eat standing up and march in endless circles.

In time, they dredge out the sorry history that landed you there in the first place, hurling it back at you like a weapon.

"Drug use was more important to you than your kids," the 28-year-old mother remembers guards yelling.

"I guess they try to tear you down to build you back up ..." she says, reciting a line of canned wisdom that hovers around the boot-camp style programs set up in Colorado and other states.

She erupts in giggles before finishing the thought: "... in 90 days."

Joelene now passes her days at the Denver Women's Correctional Facility, where she is oppressed chiefly by steel bars, heavy doors and razor-wire fences.

Her laughter in the prison visiting room rings warm and faintly apologetic; it could be judged ironic or uncomfortable, given the circumstances in which she left what is officially called the Colorado Corrections Alternative Program.

The program, for men and women convicted of nonviolent crimes, offers a chance for reduced prison terms to those who finish.

Joelene, who was five months pregnant in 2006 when she got 10 years on multiple drug-possession charges, saw it as a route to speed her way home to be with her children, now numbering four.

She also thought a dose of military discipline might help her stick to the straight and narrow in the outside world.

"I thought it would teach me to be more responsible," she says.

Joelene and her platoon were nearly two-thirds of the way through the program on Memorial Day, May 28, when they enjoyed a period of relative relaxation running relay races on a patch of dirt known as the "pit."

Running backward to tag the next person in her team, Joelene toppled to the ground with a stabbing pain in her right hip.

The day's lightened mood only extended so far.

"You just want a pity party!" a guard screamed.

She limped from the pit, and later visited a prison nurse, who gave her crutches and told her to take Motrin. A doctor diagnosed her soon afterward with a sprain to her groin and thigh.

That diagnosis stuck with her for several more weeks. She was discharged early from boot camp and sent back to the Denver prison.

Nearly a month later, a nurse in Denver revised that diagnosis to a back problem. She was given a list of exercises to do and was told to get around on crutches rather than in a wheelchair.

The pain kept worsening. On July 16, an X-ray revealed a femur fracture close to her hip joint, according to medical records. The ball that serves as the pivot for her whole right leg had essentially broken loose.

"My leg was just hanging on by a muscle for all that time," she says.

The injury might have started as a hairline break, but it had widened over the weeks to the point where surgery became necessary, Joelene says. On July 31, a surgeon bolted her leg back together. Doctors recommended physical therapy afterward, Joelene says, but so far she has only been able to do leg lifts and other exercises in her cell.

Months later, she finally walks without crutches or a cane, but her gait is wobbly. She says her body feels lopsided, with her left hip higher than the right, and she worries about the future. Physicians have predicted problems with arthritis and a likely need for hip replacement in 10 years.

After the injury was diagnosed, Joelene says, a doctor asked why she waited so long to get help.

"I can't just call you guys," she responded.

She says she felt helpless from weeks of trying to convince guards and doctors that something was really wrong.

"I've had four kids, and the pain was worse than all my kids put together," she says.

Corrections officials won't comment on Joelene's case specifically. But her injury raises a question: After tearing this inmate down, did the system do enough to put her back together?

Growing up

Judy Thurlow and her husband Rich still live in the central Colorado Springs home where she raised Joelene and two other kids.

Thurlow's granddaughter Autumn, whom she brought home from a Denver hospital's prison ward one year ago this week, was an unexpected addition to the household.

It's been an adjustment, the 53-year-old Thurlow says. She has three miniature pinschers, which she says she never considered getting when her own children were little. They bark and buzz around the home's wooden floors.

To impose some order, she and Rich cleared out the dining room and set up an enormous playpen to serve as Autumn's area.

Thurlow bounces Autumn on her hip one afternoon after picking up the child from her crib. She then tries to set the blonde-haired toddler into the pen next to a set of plastic hoops and balls.

Autumn starts crying.

"You're just like your mama," Thurlow tells the child softly, picking her back up. She then turns to explain: "Joelene was a child who could not be put down."

Autumn turns a year old this week, and Thurlow is planning to take her to visit her mother at the Denver Women's Correctional Facility. Thurlow is not sure what to expect; during her only other visit months ago, Autumn cried the whole time. She thinks her granddaughter somehow recognizes the austere place where she spent months developing in her mother's womb.

How Joelene Hartman wound up in that place is a long and emotional story for Thurlow. She seems eager to put her finger on a single event that might explain it: Thurlow divorced Joelene's father when the girl was 5. Maybe she never had enough of a relationship with him after he left.

As a single mom for the next few years, Thurlow always wanted to stay off welfare. She worked as a sheriff's deputy for nearly two years before she got a job in commercial art, which she had studied in college.

Now, Thurlow's not certain that such drive to support her family made sense. Maybe, she says, she shouldn't have worried what it would have been like for her kids to tell their friends their mother was on welfare.

"If I had to do it all over again, I would have stayed home," she says.

Joelene started getting in trouble around the time she turned 12. Thurlow says her daughter got in with the wrong crowd, going on sleepovers at one friend's house where the girls were allowed to drink and go out late.

When the girls got in trouble for stealing from a bead shop, Thurlow says she came down hard on Joelene, making her work at the store to repay what she owed.

Things kept getting worse. Thurlow remarried that year, and her new husband and Joelene started fighting.

"I started losing control," Thurlow says.

Then, one day, Joelene just ran away. 'It's a sickness'

As a teen runaway following the Grateful Dead, Joelene says, her innocent looks were both a blessing and a curse.

An older biker named "Griz" took it upon himself to look out for her, protecting her from the harsher elements on the tour. Others, many of whom would later die of drug overdoses, formed a sort of traveling family.

Despite the protection, she started getting into heroin, speed and cocaine by the time she was 14, she says. Later, people started paying her to "ferry drugs" for them, hoping her youthful appearance would keep the police from paying attention.

Legally, at least, she stayed out of trouble until she was 16. She followed the Dead to Chicago, where Jerry Garcia played his last concert July 9, 1995.

Instead of going to the show, Joelene was arrested for using acid and taken to the Cook County Jail.

Thurlow says she spent those years trying to track down her daughter and get her to come home. Nobody could help; police, she says, claimed there were too many runaways for them to do anything.

After Joelene's arrest, a Chicago judge called, asking her what kind of mother she was to let her daughter tour with a collection of drug addicts.

"I didn't let her," Thurlow replied.

Joelene eventually came home to the Springs, but probation did not keep her out of trouble, and soon she left for San Francisco. At 17, she became pregnant with her first child, fathered by a man nearly 30, whom she met while following the Dead.

After Joelene returned to the Springs a year or two later, Thurlow says she found out her daughter was using needles.

"I freaked out," Thurlow says.

Joelene got her first felony drug possession charge in 1998, after Thurlow reported her to the police. The next year, she got out of jail and promptly overdosed on heroin in a local Wal-Mart's dressing room.

That experience scared Joelene straight for a while. She met Donald Barker, the man who would become her husband, in a halfway house. She got a job doing customer service for a telecommunications company, and she gave birth to a daughter in 2002, then a son the next year. (Like Autumn, her oldest three kids all live with relatives now.)

The steady period had started unraveling by 2003. She remembers Donald started yelling at her and degrading her, and she accuses him of cheating on her.

Joelene says she started using drugs again in 2005. In March of that year, she was caught stealing "stupid stuff" some cheese and makeup from a grocery store. Police were called, and they found some heroin when they searched her, and other drugs at her home.

She was charged again with felony drug possession. She stayed out on bond for a year as her attorney worked on a deal, then she skipped the date she was supposed to enter her plea.

"I had a nervous breakdown," she explains.

She was arrested days later, her chances of a light sentence shot and her pregnancy with Autumn just starting.

She was sentenced to 10 years in prison in July 2006, gave birth to Autumn in November and volunteered for boot camp in December.

Thurlow says the thought of her daughter in boot camp was worrisome, but she hoped it could actually help her. Nothing else had.

"These things she's done ... it's a sickness," Thurlow says.

She remains convinced her daughter can turn her life around. She just needs the right kind of help.

"She's still young," Thurlow says. "I guess I just won't give up on her."

'Can't handle pain'

Joelene signed a letter in January volunteering for the boot-camp program and listing the prison luxuries she would be forfeiting: visits, most phone calls, personal possessions. Her hair, the letter states, would be bobbed.

Misconduct in boot camp is "resolved" by a drill instructor demanding push-ups, jumping jacks or other exercises, according to the letter.

Joelene arrived at the camp in Buena Vista in early April. Immediately, she says, the guards were in her face.

""You piece of shit,'" she mimics. ""You worthless piece of shit.'"

The push-ups and running left her body aching, Joelene says, and soon the guards were picking apart her history and those of her fellow recruits.

One man had requested kosher meals and got grief for it every time, she says, with guards referring to him as "Kosher." She remembers the man crying; eventually, he left the program.

Despite all this, Joelene says she liked boot camp. For the first month, she says, you can't do anything right, and the whole group is punished each time someone slips up. But it becomes easier as personal fitness improves and the guards relent.

Just before she was hurt, Joelene says, she was impressed by how she did on a physical-fitness test. She ran a mile in 14 minutes, and in two minutes could do 22 three-count push-ups or 51 sit-ups.

The injury changed everything. The prison nurse who saw her first told her she could walk it out, she says.

Within a week, limping her way to meals and around the camp, the pain was becoming excruciating. One morning after breakfast, she felt a "pop" as she tried to climb in her bunk. She started screaming and crying. Drill staff members, she says, laughed.

She saw the nurse again, and then a doctor who she says gave her a "real brief exam."

"Obviously, you can't handle pain very well," she remembers being told.

The doctor medically discharged her from boot camp June 12. The next day, en route to Denver, Joelene managed to make her first call to her mother from the prison in Cañon City.

Thurlow says her daughter was sobbing and crying: "I'm having to drag my leg. I can't lift my leg."

"I could tell from the tone of her voice she was scared," Thurlow says.

In the following days and weeks, Thurlow started making calls. A nurse in Denver, Thurlow says, told her: "I think your daughter is trying to work you, and she's trying to seek out narcotics."

Despite repeated medical visits, Joelene says, no one seemed to be listening. Her foot was starting to grow numb. Finally, a physician suggested she might have broken her hip, and sent her for an X-ray.

It was while waiting for that X-ray that Joelene met another inmate who offered to help her draft a letter of intent to sue the Department of Corrections.

Her mother helped her mail the letter in October to Colorado Attorney General John Suthers and Department of Corrections Director Ari Zavaras, a step she hopes will keep the door open should she later decide to file a lawsuit.

"The crux of my suit is based upon 8th Amendment Violation including deliberate indifference with malice in not addressing a potentially life threatening serious medical condition," the letter reads. "I could have avoided surgery if I had received medical care immediately ... My cry for help was ignored and I was told I was faking and lazy."

Joelene, dressed in her green prison jumpsuit, laughs like a kid when she talks about her legal assistant, whose identity she learned only later.

It was Jill Coit, known as the "Black Widow." Coit was convicted in the 1993 slaying of her husband in Steamboat Springs, and at least two books have been written on her life and many marriages.

DOC's view

Department of Corrections officials say department policies prevent them from talking about Joelene's case, given the possibility of a lawsuit, or any medical matters.

Mike Perry, the boot camp's program manager, says many offenders do not stay for the full 90 days. The completion rate is about 67 percent, he says, down about 10 percent from a high when the program had more staff. Some of those who leave become "noncompliant," while others develop medical or psychological problems.

Women make up a tiny portion of inmates who start the program each year, and their completion rate is slightly lower than it is for men, Perry says.

Speaking generally, Perry says boot camp staff abide by medical recommendations they receive for each offender. If someone has an injury and can't run for two weeks, staff members come up with alternative activities. If problems are too severe to continue, the inmate gets dropped from the program.

Perry, who was a Marine for 20 years, is convinced that boot camp can help people change their lives. Drill instructors have a role to play, he says, and those who are only there because they get a kick out of yelling at offenders don't last. The best instructors stick around because they feel they are helping offenders get their lives on track.

Joelene planned to get out of prison and to get back to her kids, and the plan seemed to be going well until she was injured.

Now back in prison, Joelene is uncertain if her sentence will be reduced. As things stand now, she isn't eligible for parole until 2010. She says she hopes to qualify for work release before that.

Eventually, Joelene says, she'd like to go back to school, possibly studying to do forensic work. For now, she talks openly about her past and says she wishes she had made other choices.

"I should have listened to my mom," she says.

At least, she says, her troubles should help her as a parent.

"I don't think my kids will be able to get anything over on me."

lane@csindy.com

  • Joelene Hartman again passes her days behind bars.

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