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?

McDonough confirms that the DOC is investigating the killing as possibly gang-related. Estrada says he has no idea if Garcia had some kind of "gang thing" going himself, but he and Clark weren't part of it.

"That's the first thing they turn to," says Estrada, who's been designated as belonging to a "security threat group" within CSP but denies any gang affiliation. "From my understanding, they got us all down [as being] in the same gang. They said I told somebody I'd had six or seven gang-related fights at Centennial [another DOC prison]. None of it is true."

Estrada has his own theories about what was driving Garcia. "Could be for what I did to somebody on the street," he suggests. "Somebody might have paid him to do it or told him to do it. It could be for anything."

Five years ago Estrada shot and killed a young man named Juvencio Garcia in a dispute over a girl in the parking lot of a popular nightclub, the Ghetto Lounge in Thornton. "My first murder case was a guy named Garcia," he notes. "I didn't even know him, didn't know nothing about the guy. [Michael Garcia] might be his cousin. He never said nothing, you know?" (Michael Garcia's grandmother says that he was not related to Juvencio Garcia.)

Clark says he's baffled about the attack, too. "I was in the pod with him for one night," says Clark. "I didn't know nothing about the dude. Maybe I got in an argument here at CSP with one of his relatives or something and they passed it on to him. That's the only thing I could come up with."

"That's a crock," responds McDonough. "I don't know why it happened, but I would bet a good deal of money that Mr. Clark probably knows."

Whatever prompted Garcia to attack two older, stronger convicts may never be known. The heart of darkness at the core of most prison violence defies easy explanation. For men who've spent months or years in extreme isolation, trivial affronts loom large; they are brooded upon, chewed over, relived again and again in the solitude of their cells. One study by Harvard psychiatrist Stuart Grassian reported "the emergence of primitive, aggressive fantasies of revenge, torture and mutilation of the prison guards" among solitary inmates in Massachusetts. Studies of men isolated in small groups over long periods of time suggest a similar surge in savage, animalistic episodes. Whatever "positive" behavior Garcia had demonstrated to earn his way into the PRO unit, his five years in lockdown at CSP hadn't exactly altered his course.

"If you look at Michael's history, it's a history fraught with senseless violence," says Richard Bloch, the Arapahoe County prosecutor who handled the Miyamoto case. "He beat people up in schoolyards. He threw bricks at old people's heads. I don't know how it happened or why it happened, but his death certainly didn't surprise me."

Matthew Clark never really bought into the PRO Unit. He knew it was supposed to help him get out of CSP, but it seemed like a trip on one of those tiny wheels they make for hamsters, with no beginning and no end.

Classes in anger management or "prison life skills" would begin, lurch on for a couple of weeks, then abruptly be suspended. Guys would be transferred from one unit to another with little warning or explanation. Clark ate meals in the dayhall rather than in his cell, but otherwise the unit looked a lot like lockdown to him.

"I didn't see much difference, to tell the truth," Clark says. "The only time we got out was for meals and an hour and a half a day to walk around, clean your house, take a shower."

Johnny Estrada wasn't wild about the PRO unit, either. For a class called "Crime Impact," he was asked to calculate the cost of his own funeral and write a eulogy for himself. According to the official CSP overview of the program, the course is "designed to engender empathy by increasing the awareness of the financial, emotional and physical problems endured by victims of crime."

"They try to put you into the victim stance, where you have to deal with death and stuff," Estrada says. "I didn't approve of that."

But one of the biggest prisoner complaints about the PRO Unit is a matter of what might be described as group dynamics. "They were putting people from CSP into population [at other prisons] and there wasn't nobody getting stabbed," Clark says. "But you take them from being locked down and you put them together in this...I mean, they got people here who don't care. Like Garcia. He had two life sentences. He didn't have nothing to lose. I was supposed to see the parole board for the third time. I was probably going to get out."

Since Garcia's death, the DOC has made several changes in the PRO Unit to beef up security. The gang release is now operational, so compliant prisoners can be locked down quickly. No more than eight inmates in a sixteen-cell pod are now permitted in the dayhall at the same time, so there are fewer men to lock down. The department is looking at ways of introducing non-lethal "control devices," such as pepper spray, into the pod without requiring officers to physically enter the area; ways of bringing in more experienced staff who can "provide a sense of confidence to the Shift Commander during emergency situations"; ways of double-checking the assignment process to avoid placing known enemies in the same arena like Roman gladiators. (CSP's intelligence/gang coordinator was on vacation at the time Garcia was moved to the same unit as Clark and Estrada.)

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