Skip to main content

My Name is Tommy Lee and I am currently residing at Sterling Correctional Facility in Colorado. I have served nearly fourteen years on a 32-year sentence and I grew up in the Berkeley Neighborhood, on the North Side of Denver. As with many life stories, mine is complex and could fill volumes. When you google me, you won’t find a full description of what I am passionately pursuing today. You will find legitimate productivity and a more law-abiding individual than the person I used to be. For most of my life I have been a violent, terrible screw up. You will not get full disclosure on everything I had done, but you will find a pretty serious collection of events that seem as if they belong in an action movie featuring criminals and their daily struggles.

Raised by my biological mother’s aunt and uncle, because my mom was only a child, herself, at the age of thirteen, when I was born. I was loved by these folks. I called them mom and dad, and they were very lenient. Don’t get it wrong, I’m not trying to say that it’s their fault I turned out the way I did. In their own way, they did try to raise me right—I was just such a hardheaded, strong-spirited little turd that nothing stuck. When I would get in trouble and receive a beating or end up locked in the bathroom with no light or supper (and listen, before someone goes calling Social Services, I’ve got to point out that this was the 70s and my parents were born in the 30s; it was a different time and disciplinary strategies were not the same as today), I’d make sure my next screw up was ten times worse because if I was gonna have to pay for it, I was going to make sure it was worth the punishment. Take this attitude and pit it against two people who were in their 50s and had raised two sons twenty years before I came along–then is it any wonder?

Punishment was completely abandoned and their strategy had become one of trying to reason with and guide me away from wrong choices. But, since they loved me so and could not see their adopted son suffer, they actually hid me from authorities and attempted to cover my wrongdoings when I was adamant about being the Antichrist. Imagine being a God-fearing redneck, born in Tennessee during the depression and raised in Kentucky, with a third-grade education because you have worked your whole life for an honest dollar, living in a Denver trailer court, raising a little heathen like me. I put this man through hell. Stealing from him and mom. The smell of pot coming from my room. Sometimes twenty to thirty of us would be in my room having a keg-party. Many others would often stop by outside my window. I would disappear for weeks on end before returning home. I had dropped out of school by the eighth grade because I had warrants for my arrest. Mom and dad helped me avoid being picked up by the police by sending away for the proper papers to change my identity to my given name at birth.

By the time I was sixteen, I exchanged gunfire with a Denver Police Officer. Since the cop entered through a window, it never became much of anything, but on the heels of this incident, my old identity and probation record caught up with me. I returned to probation, but with my age being what it was, I actually beat them out of a year’s time because I would only have to serve until I was eighteen. It was the 80s, what can I say? As a condition of returning to probation, I did have to serve ten days in Adams County Detention Center. Other than fourteen days in Gilliam’s Hall (thirteen spent in medical because of the beating I received from a bunch of gangbangers who knew each other and did not know me), this time in ACDC was all the juvenile time I ever did.

At eighteen, I ended up in Jefferson County Jail, facing aggravated robbery from a convenience store stickup when I was seventeen. Dad came to see me once during the six months. He sat there and cried during that visit. This was the second time I had ever seen tears come from those eyes. When I was nine years old, my uncle’s eldest son was shot and killed at the age of twenty-five. Basically, seeing me in jail was just as heartbreaking for him as the premature death of his son; that’s why he simply couldn’t handle a second visit. Again, I got probation but this time it was an eight-year suspended sentence courtesy of the Department of Corrections. I violated that probation about a year later while being caught outside after the curfew set by my PO, and for being in possession of a .357 revolver.

Young, first time in prison, 165 pounds,  6’1”. Yeah, I was intimidating. I was sent to ‘Gladiator School’ where I ended up gangbanging with the best of them. Insecure and scared, I spent most of my time proving myself by working out and fighting. The other whiteboys liked that about me, and even though they thought my straight edger, no drug policy was a little odd, the majority of them partook in the drug culture that I had abandoned years before, the fighting made me an acceptable individual within their structure.

Since 1989 I have been in and out of prison on numerous occasions. Each incident stemming from a robbery, even though I was not charged with robbery every time. Possession of a fully automatic machine-gun, attempted murder in the first degree (dropped to first degree assault),  and aggravated robbery. The last two run-ins ended in shoot-outs with the police, with the first incident leading to my being shot four times, while the second episode concluded when a K-9 police dog latched onto my biceps.

This time back in custody, I have done the longest stretch yet. I’ve been locked up for about fourteen years on a thirty-two-year sentence. I had been in for about a year before a pretty violent assault landed me in administrative segregation. Most of you probably know this as “solitary confinement,” or, “The Hole.” During my four and a half years locked down, I did some serious soul-searching. There really isn’t much else to do being locked in a 6’ X 8’ X 14’ cell twenty-three hours a day, with the remaining hour split between an exercise room the same size as this cell, small shower room and no outside time at all.

The thing is, they have got something for you when you act up—you cannot beat them this way. During a cell extraction (when the COs have to enter a cell by force to remove an inmate). I was bound so tightly with my arms behind my back that I couldn’t move them. This resulted in permanent shoulder damage because I was left in such restraint for fifteen hours straight. To this day the physical damage from that binding affects me worse than being shot four times and operated on. Yes, a person can become permanently hurt in these situations, and there doesn’t seem to be a damn thing we can do about it because there is a labyrinth of bureaucracy that protects all the extreme and unneeded measures taken. Sure, I could let it all turn me bitter and resentful, and, yes, I have been very angry at the Colorado Department of Corrections, CDOC, staff and administration, the world in general and myself. Mostly, though, I have found that I was angry at myself. CDOC had all the reasons they needed to respond to their necessary extremes based on the way I continued to act.

Imagine being a God-fearing redneck, born in Tennessee during the depression and raised in Kentucky, with a third-grade education because you have worked your whole life for an honest dollar, living in a Denver trailer court, raising a little heathen like me. I put this man through hell.

LIfe for us wasn’t getting any better no matter what we did or where we lived. We went on welfare and I moved into the projects. Our new place now nurtured every defect, addiction, distorted belief and poor coping skills we all had. My three years in the projects, I suffered so much more abuse, mostly at the hands of my mother. She would beat me and my brothers with sticks, a belt and a horse whip. Violence had become normal and automatic behavior at home.

By 13, I had become a full blown drug addict, my mom had abandoned her post as a mother, leaving us boys to find our own way. This crushed my self esteem. I hated my life, and who I was. I  didn’t fit in at school, and believed that every kid at school saw me as I saw myself, a poor, dirty kid with a drug addicted mom who nobody loved, and had no worth. I just wanted to be someone else. That year is when I drank my first beer.

It numbed everything…allowing me an escape from the pain I kept internalizing. The moment of that realization, I fell in love with alcohol, it became the only thing I wanted.

In high school, I should have been doing good,studying, getting good grades and playing sports. But instead I began hanging around the neighborhood gang more, searching for acceptance and approval—a place to belong, to be needed. Since I felt I couldn’t get any of that from home, I got it from my gang. I got their respect through violent, anti-social behavior that contributed to a false image. I found my way to be somebody else. I made others fear me, like I was afraid of my father, my uncle and mom.

At 15, I was expelled from high school, I was drinking everyday to the point where I couldn’t function without it. I kept all my worth wrapped up in my false image. The neighborhood gang became my family and all I cared about. My home had become my mom’s drug house as I would watch her drug friends come in and out of my house all hours of the night. The amount of pain, shame, stress and frustration was overwhelming at times and it was what I walked out my front door with to face the world each day. I took all that hurt and shaped it into my anger and rage because that was the only emotion I knew how to express and wasn’t afraid to. I remember having all extreme emotions within me and feeling I had nowhere to put them. What happened is I exploded on others, transferring all that pain violently to them.

I was a hurt person who hurt people which brought more shame into my life. Within my environment my behavior was always met with approval and validation with little to no consequences.

Receive more inspiring stories and news from incarcerated people around the world.