The Killing Floor

In Colorado's highest-security prison, two inmates beat Michael Garcia to death while a crowd of corrections officers watched. Why didn't anyone stop it?

Michael Garcia must have known he would die in prison. But no one expected that his death would come so soon, in front of so many people.

When he was seventeen, Garcia did something so terrible that a Denver judge gave him two life sentences without hope of parole. Although he pursued his appeals as doggedly as any seasoned convict, he could see the years stretching ahead of him like an endless cage.

"I tell you I would rather be on Death Row than doing life," he wrote in a letter requesting a sentencing review, "because doing life is just a long, slow, miserable death."

Garcia's misery didn't last as long as he thought it would. Locked down for the past five years in the Colorado State Penitentiary (CSP), the state's maximum-security prison, he had nothing left to lose but his sorry life. Two months ago he lost that, in a bloody struggle with two other inmates. It happened shortly before seven in the morning on September 24, in the course of six brutal, desperate minutes--while eleven other inmates and nearly as many guards watched and did nothing to stop the killing.

The morning it all went down, Matthew Clark had just sat down to breakfast in Dayhall Two, a common area in the D unit of CSP where prisoners are allowed to mingle briefly outside their cells. Clark was 26, eight years into a ten-year sentence for burglary and on his way out of CSP; in fact, he was up for a parole hearing in a few weeks. But the next six minutes changed everything.

Clark remembers hearing someone shout, "Watch out, Matt!" The next thing he knew, Michael Garcia had stabbed him in the face with something sharp, and Clark was fighting for his life.

Johnny Estrada, 27, was sitting at the same table. Like Clark and Garcia, he was Hispanic, from Denver, and had been in trouble with the law since he was a juvenile; like them, too, he had already served several years of his sentence--in Estrada's case, 36 years for second-degree murder--in lockdown at CSP. According to other prisoners in the dayhall, Garcia lunged at Estrada after stabbing Clark. Soon all three of them were on the floor.

Initial news reports of the incident, relying on information supplied by the Department of Corrections, state that Garcia was stabbed with a sharpened toothbrush. The reports were wrong. He was beaten to death, with exquisite viciousness, over a period of time that eyewitnesses estimate as lasting from six to nine minutes.

Through it all, corrections officers gathered behind a locked door and watched the scene through the glass. One prisoner with a clear view of the dayhall door says that at one point there were at least eight to twelve guards massed there, "akin to people viewing a boxing match." (DOC officials claim that only four officers were present for most of the fight and that ten other staffers arrived "simultaneously" at the end, but incident reports obtained by Westword contradict this version of events.) No CSP staffer entered the dayhall until a shift commander and escort staff had arrived and the prisoners had been ordered back to their cells and locked down, including Estrada and Clark--who, according to official reports, gave their attacker a few final kicks in the head, exchanged high-fives and then voluntarily returned to their cells.

Still breathing but unconscious, Garcia was put on a gurney and taken to a hospital in Pueblo. He was pronounced dead ninety minutes later. The autopsy report lists the likely cause of death as "trauma to the brain." He was 23 years old.

Few people will mourn the passing of Michael Garcia, who was in prison for the horrific 1992 murders of an elderly couple in northwest Denver. To call him a "mad-dog killer" would be a libel on rabid canines everywhere. Those familiar with the details of his crime may even see a crude justice in his dying in a savage fight that he started. But his bad end is also a disturbing sign of administrative confusion and miscalculation at the state's notorious supermax prison, where a single mistake can be a matter of life and death. It's the culmination of a rash of stabbings, fights and other assaults at CSP that official policies have done little to prevent and may even have encouraged.

Garcia's death is the first homicide in the history of the penitentiary, which opened in 1993 and remains one of the most restrictive high-security prisons in the country. But it's also one of eight inmate-on-inmate assaults that have occurred in CSP's PRO (short for Progressive Reintegration Opportunity) Unit since the program began a few months ago.

The PRO Unit is the core of a 252-bed addition to CSP that was completed last January. The unit was intended to be a transitional program for prisoners progressing out of solitary confinement. The basic idea is that men who've been locked in their cells 23 hours a day for months or years need a gradual process of intensely supervised socialization--including the opportunity to "interact" with other prisoners a few hours a day during meals or classes--before being shipped to a less restrictive prison. But the program got off to a rocky start and has been retooled considerably in recent months, resulting in frequent shifts of prisoners from one unit to another, a practice that may have thrown deadly enemies together. The turmoil also contributed to inmate-staff tensions that resulted in a wave of forced-cell extractions at CSP last summer ("Hard Cell," August 20).

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