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?

On the morning of September 24, Garcia armed himself with a sharpened toothbrush. He wrapped the shiv in his hand with a tether made from a T-shirt so it couldn't be taken away from him too easily. Then he went after Matthew Clark--going for the eyes, just as he had done with Jack Miyamoto. But this time his prey wasn't old and feeble.

Some of the men in D unit believe that Garcia was just planning to stick someone, anyone, so he could be taken out of the group and placed in solitary--where, presumably, he would be safe. But prison combat knows no quarter. If that was really his plan, then he was counting on the guards stopping the fight before it was too late.

It didn't work out that way.

All the violence in prison is geared for murder, nothing else. You can't have someone with ill feelings for you walking around. He could drop a knife in you any day...A knife is an intimate weapon. Very personal. It unsettles the mind because you are not killing in physical self-defense. You're killing someone in order to live respectably in prison. Moral self-defense.

--Jack Henry Abbott, In the Belly of the Beast

Garcia's first thrust caught Matthew Clark in the cheek, an inch below his right eye.

"Somebody just told me to watch out--there were four of us sitting at this table--and he got me right there," Clark says, pointing at the small red scar as he sits behind glass in the CSP visitors' room. "I didn't even have a chance to get up, and he was on me. Then he goes around the table for my buddy.

"They start fighting, and by this time I'm up. I just snapped. I start hitting him. All three of us are fighting. By the time he goes down--I'm not going to say too much about that--but he goes down, and that's when I notice this thing was strapped to his hand. I tried to take it away from him, but I couldn't."

He rubs his right hand, displaying the marks of two more puncture wounds. "Since I been in that PRO Unit, I seen more fights, more stabbings than anywhere in population," he says. "I wasn't going to sit there and let him stab me, I know that. I'm going to protect myself."

Whether Garcia's main target was Clark or Estrada--or both--is unknown. The two men had met in another prison years before and had been thrown together in the same unit in CSP for a few months, but Clark says they weren't particularly tight. They did, however, have adjacent cells in D-2. "He could have seen us talking and thought we were buddy-buddy," Clark suggests. "I don't know."

Estrada says that when Garcia came at him, he wrapped the slender youth in a "sleeper hold" and dragged him to the floor while Clark punched him. "All the while, Garcia's stabbing me in the arm and forehead trying to get me to let go," he says. "If I just let him go, who's going to stop him from stabbing me? [The corrections officers] couldn't stop me, so why should they stop him? They're supposed to be here for our safety, but I can't tell. I can't tell."

Any fight in prison can quickly become a fight to the death, prisoners say. "If someone just tried to stick a sharpened toothbrush through your eye and into your brain to kill you, you react in a manner so you will survive," says one inmate who witnessed the Garcia killing. "I don't expect someone who has never been in that kind of situation to understand it, but I know from experience. I stabbed a guy once. I knew I had stuck him, but I didn't know that I stuck him four times until the police told me."

A DOC officer named Kevin Wilcoxson was the first to see the fight in progress in Dayhall Two. He notified the CSP control center and summoned other floor staff to the door leading into the dayhall. But no officers went into the pod for several minutes. For safety reasons, CSP policy calls for a ratio of four officers per inmate before staff is permitted to intervene in such a situation. Since the unit housed sixteen men, at least fourteen of whom were out in the dayhall, that meant the door wouldn't be opened until fifty or sixty officers arrived--or until most of the inmates voluntarily retreated to their cells.

Locking down the noncombatants should have taken only a few seconds; none of the other prisoners in the pod were eager to join the fight, which could have earned them additional felony charges. Several eyewitnesses say that most of the inmates in D-2 lined up quickly outside their cells as soon as staffers ordered them to "lock down." But the unit's gang release, an automatic mechanism that allows guards to open and close an entire tier of cells at once, wasn't working. According to DOC spokeswoman Liz McDonough, it hadn't been properly programmed.

Instead, staff members had to open and close each cell door individually, a process that consumed precious minutes. While they waited for the dayhall to clear, the officers watched Garcia struggle to stay alive.

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