After decades in prison, first day outside a shock for Colorado parolee

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This is the first in a five-part series on former inmate Kevin Monteiro and the state's parole system.

Kevin Monteiro close-up
Kevin Monteiro was released from Colorado's Sterling Correctional Facility in June after decades in prison.

On June 10, 2014, Kevin Monteiro stepped onto a prison van at the Sterling Correctional Facility in northeast Colorado. He traveled south for a couple of hours to downtown Denver and he was let off at the Greyhound Bus station at 19th and Curtis. It was the 56-year-old's first day of freedom since the 1980s--about three decades ago--and, to Monteiro, the world looked bizarre.

"Everything is out of place," Monteiro says. "I know where I’m at but everything is really, like, people had moved the furniture around."

Monteiro was convicted of 2nd degree murder in the 1980s for his part in a stabbing in Aurora -- what he says was a drug deal gone bad. He also says others were involved, but no one else was ever apprehended.

More from this series:

The downtown Greyhound station is one of several drop-off points for inmates after release. Along with the ride from prison, Monteiro had been given a prison-issued debit card, but he says, that's about it.

“I had a hundred dollars in my pocket and a box of books," he says about that first day. "No family, nobody.”

Greyound station
Many of the state's parolees are dropped off at this Greyhound bus terminal in downtown Denver and left to fend for themselves.

Monteiro's lonely journey on his first day of freedom is typical for Colorado inmates who leave prison without family or friends to turn to: a bus trip, a bit of money, and no one to turn to for guidance or support.

Kevin Monteiro is a solidly built guy -- 5’11’’ and about 200 pounds. He was born in Rhode Island, grew up with a single mother and then, because she had problems, moved in with his grandmother. He says he suffered abuse at home. He left Rhode Island for California when he was in his teens and eventually came to Denver.

Time travel

Monteiro says he'd prepared himself for his release. He knew things were going to look different outside of prison. He knew he’d see people walking around with cell phones and driving 21st century cars. But he didn’t expect that freedom would feel so heavy.

"The physical pressure was like I was carrying water bags, like hefty trash bags just full of water and I couldn’t seem to walk straight," says Monteiro. "And the only way [the pressure] would leave was if I have structure--in other words, somebody has to get me up, I need to be scheduled constantly."

Every day for decades, Kevin Monteiro had been forced to follow prison’s strict schedule, but when he stepped off the prison van, he had no schedule. It’s that lack of routine that trips up a lot of parolees when they’re first released.

A system under scrutiny

Colorado's parole system was put in the spotlight two years ago with the killing of Tom Clements, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections. Clements was shot dead at his home in Monument, Colorado, south of Denver, by parolee Evan Ebel, who had recently been released from prison. Ebel, who also killed a pizza delivery man, had cut off his electronic ankle monitor. The department uses the monitors to track inmates' whereabouts. A few days later, Ebel was killed in a shootout with police in Texas. Ebel had severe mental illness, was prone to violence, and had spent much of his prison time in administrative segregation--the prison term for solitary confinement.

Ironically, Tom Clements was known as a reformer who had worked to reduce the number of inmates kept in solitary confinement, especially inmates with mental illness.

The killing raised questions in the minds of many Coloradans about whether the Department of Corrections was doing enough to track parolees after their release. In fact, two studies conducted by the National Institute of Corrections after the murder found deficiencies in the state's parole system. It describes case managers being overloaded with clients and other responsibilities.

The report also found a need for more community services and programs for parolees like Monteiro. It recommended each inmate receive a detailed case plan that follows the offender from prison through parole. Since then, the state has allocated some money to community non-profits that work with formerly incarcerated men and women.

Christie Donner, who runs the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, says Monteiro's story, of being dropped off on a street corner with $100 in hand and no plan for how to find a job, shelter, transportation, food, and clothing, is shared by many of Colorado's parolees. Long-term offenders also face the daunting task of adjusting to a 21st century world. She says if an inmate doesn't have a family member or "sponsor" to help them once they're released from prison, or isn't assigned to a halfway house, they are often left to fend for themselves.

"They may or may not get a housing voucher," says Donner. "They may or may not get into a shelter. It’s rough. We hear this all the time."Monteiro riding bus

Good fortune

Monteiro's first order of business after getting off the prison van was to call his parole officer -- and then find a way to get to his parole office in Englewood, 10 miles south of Denver. Right away, he had a stroke of good luck--one of many lucky encounters he would have as he struggled to get his footing. He saw an elderly couple with phone.

"And I walked up with a certain distance and I asked them if I could use their phone." Monteiro remembers that day, nine months ago, as if it were yesterday. "And I made it very clear who I was and where I was coming from."

The couple lives in Sterling and were in Denver that day visiting family. The man asked that we call him Bill and omit his last name for the sake of privacy. Bill says he saw the desperation in Monteiro's eyes and wanted to help. He couldn't believe that after decades behind bars, Monteiro was expected to find his way alone.

"Kevin was there and he had a big box of things," says Bill. "And had no one there and had no family or anything."

Bill let Monteiro use his phone. And then he and his wife did something most people probably wouldn’t do. They drove Monteiro to the parole office in Englewood -- and then waited while Bill says Monteiro wrangled with his parole officer for a place to stay that night. Monteiro says the prison had promised him a voucher for a short stay at a hotel. The Department of Corrections contracts with low-budget hotels in the metro area for newly- released inmates. But when Monteiro arrived at the parole office, his parole officer gave him bad news: there was no voucher waiting for him.

Bill and his wife continued to wait in the car outside the office and Monteiro came out periodically to tell them what has happening.

"They just gave him a terrible run-around. He was just ready to throw up his hands," Bill says. He and his wife have stayed in touch with Monteiro since that day. "We kept encouraging him. You know, just stick with your guns. They said they’d help you; they need to help you."

Can't go it alone

It was a Kafkaesque struggle for Monteiro. At one point, while trying to persuade the parole officer to help him get shelter, Monteiro broke down and started crying.

"I said, well, I’m not going to leave here to fail. You can just go and cuff me back up and I’ll go back now. I said to her, it’s been 30 years. All I’m asking you is to help me."

Eventually, someone else in the office intervened and Monteiro got a temporary voucher for a hotel. We tried to contact the parole officer, Crystal Thomas, but didn't get a response.

Before Monteiro could go to his hotel, he learned he had to make another stop to get his ankle monitor, which allows the Department of Corrections to track his whereabouts. Bill says he was shocked that the state's parole division was making a newly released offender like Monteiro--who had been in prison for years--jump through so many hoops with virtually no support.

"So they sent him clear way out east Denver," Bill remembers. "So we took him out there, and got that ankle monitor on him, and then he needed to go to his motel."

First, Bill and his wife took Monteiro to get some toiletries. They bought him some clothes and took him to dinner. When they arrived at the hotel, they walked him to his room, gave him their cell number, and drove home to Sterling.

Find more of Monteiro's story.