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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?

The DOC's own investigation into Garcia's death found numerous security and operational problems in the PRO Unit, ranging from non-working or inadequate equipment to staff members assigned to the unit who "were very inexperienced and had an insufficient amount of training for this type of incident," according to an internal report obtained by Westword. The report also raises questions about the screening process used in assigning inmates to the unit and whether officials had checked the possible gang affiliations of the combatants before putting them in the same pod.

The biggest question of all, however, isn't how the fight came about but why corrections officers failed to intervene. In theory, the DOC's mission involves not only protecting the public from the inmates, but also protecting the inmates from each other. That's not always possible, of course, but many of those who were present in Dayhall Two that morning, including Clark and Estrada, say that Garcia's death could have been avoided if the guards had arrived earlier.

"It should have never went as far as it did," says Estrada. "There was no excuse for [corrections] officers to stand there and watch me choke Mr. Garcia to death. I was just holding him and restraining him to keep him from stabbing anyone else. I felt I had to restrain him until the officers came in, and that never happened."

Several prisoners who were in the unit at the time have provided detailed accounts of what they saw. All asked that their names not be used, out of fear of retaliation from CSP staff.

"I've grown up around violence, and I've seen a lot of crazy stuff," says one. "I am not tripping on the guy getting killed. I am tripping on why eight, nine or ten police just watched it and did nothing to stop it. Garcia did not need to die, and they know it."

Another inmate says the gruesome affair has sent a clear message to the rest of the 600-plus inmates in lockdown at CSP, waiting for their own crack at the PRO Unit. "This incident inspired a saying," he explains, "among ad/seg [administrative segregation] inmates: 'Got a beef with a guy? Wait till you get to the PRO Unit and you can kill him there without the cops stopping you.'"

From the outside, the Colorado State Penitentiary is largely indistinguishable from other prisons built in recent years to keep up with the state's booming inmate population: sleek, postmodernist, austere. But CSP isn't quite what it seems, and doing time there is very different from doing time anywhere else--even for people who think they know what doing time is all about.

When the project was first proposed a few years ago, legislators thought they were authorizing construction of a "close" prison, between medium and maximum security. It was only after the appropriation had been made that the prison was converted to a supermax, a place to isolate "the worst of the worst": prisoners who've attempted escapes, committed assaults or otherwise proven to be management problems. The DOC's way of dealing with such hard cases was to not deal with them, to keep them in solitary confinement (now known as administrative segregation) around the clock, except for brief exercise periods and trips to the shower.

As the prison population soared, CSP filled up quickly. Getting out was another matter. Releasing men from total lockdown to the street, or even to the general population of a less regimented prison, posed a number of problems. Hence the push for adding another wing to the prison this year, which was supposed to offer a transitional program--the PRO Unit--for prisoners getting out of CSP, as well as a diversionary program for close-security inmates from other prisons who weren't quite dangerous enough to merit isolation.

But the $20 million addition, which increased CSP's capacity by 50 percent, has proved to be a bit of sleight of hand, too. The diversionary program was abandoned after a few weeks in the wake of numerous protests over the transfer of inmates to CSP without a formal hearing. The PRO Unit has been scaled back and now occupies less than a hundred beds; no one has yet "graduated" from the seven-month program, which commenced in earnest in June. The rest of the 252-bed addition is being used for administrative segregation, a simple expansion of the lockdown mentality that has prevailed at CSP from the beginning.

Michael Anthony Garcia joined this ongoing experiment in behavior modification in 1993. He was sent to CSP not for anything he'd done while in the prison system--in fact, he'd been in the system only a few weeks--but because of the underlying nature of his crime, which prison officials considered so violent as to constitute an ongoing security threat.

In June 1992 the bodies of Jack and Mary Miyamoto were found in the bedroom of their modest bungalow in northwest Denver. The couple had been stabbed to death in their bed. Jack had tried to defend himself, judging from the dozens of wounds on his arms and face. Together they had been stabbed a total of 83 times.

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