A Real Ball-Buster

Squeezing the truth out of the Department of Corrections.

In the state Department of Corrections' Alternative Program, also known as "boot camp" and modeled on military-style training, guards may apply specific tactics to persuade newly arrived prisoners to follow orders. One approved method is called "chesting." The corrections officer, keeping his hands down by his sides, bumps his chest into an inmate's back to herd him in a particular direction. (Female guards are permitted to use their shoulders and backs so as not to injure their breasts.)

Robert Ellsworth, a sergeant at Colorado's Buena Vista Correctional Facility Boot Camp, is credited with inventing a new technique. A colleague who saw him perform the maneuver later described it: "Ellsworth turned around so his back was to an inmate's back and leaned against the inmate. He then crouched lower and [reaching through both sets of legs] grabbed the inmate in the crotch area and squeezed."

"Watch this," Ellsworth was heard to say. "It will get them going."
On a spring evening in 1996, while herding a new boot camp inmate named Jason Quick onto a bus, Ellsworth apparently squeezed too hard. Quick, who had arrived in the program following a series of traffic infractions, complained. Prisoners, of course, gripe about their treatment in prison all the time. But medical tests conducted five months later revealed that Quick would soon have even more reason to do so: He was sterile.

What really happened that day three years ago is still up in the air, legally. Ellsworth was eventually fired from his job for abusing his position of power. He appealed that decision and lost; however, he has since asked that his sacking be reviewed at a still higher level.

Ellsworth was also prosecuted by the Chaffee County District Attorney for sexual assault, among other charges. Two years ago he agreed to plead no contest to a lesser charge--a deal he subsequently reneged on. After a series of appeals, the case made its way to the Colorado Supreme Court, where it has languished for the past year.

In July 1997, a civil lawsuit was added to the growing mound of paperwork. It charges that the Department of Corrections knew about Ellsworth's behavior but didn't stop him, and thus is to blame for Quick's injuries. It also alleges that Ellsworth caused Quick to become sterile and asks for damages. That suit, too, is pending, in Chaffee County District Court.

The ball-buster incident even reached the attention of then-governor Roy Romer, who ordered former DOC director Ari Zavaras to investigate what really happened between Quick and Ellsworth. "The Governor takes your situation very seriously," one of Romer's legal advisers promised Quick in a personal letter.

No one is arguing that Quick--who fathered three children before the incident--didn't make his own bed in getting to prison. A series of driving offenses got him into trouble; missed court dates and unapproved disappearances from halfway houses compounded it. "There's no doubt he screwed up," says his Greeley civil attorney, David Morgan.

Thanks to such blunders, by early 1996 Quick had graduated from the county lockup to the state Department of Corrections. On May 1, 1996, he arrived at the Buena Vista Alternative Program, a rehabilitation system designed with prisoners like Jason Quick in mind.

Intended to relieve prison overcrowding, the DOC's boot camp is aimed at pushing young, nonviolent male offenders back into society equipped with new and useful skills, such as discipline and respect for authority. It claims to instill these traits using the old-fashioned military philosophy of breaking down recruits in order to build them back up. (Corrections officers who work in the program receive special training at an Army training center in Alabama.) Prisoners who successfully complete the program can earn lighter sentences.

Inmates arrive at the camp in south central Colorado once a month, 30 to 45 at a time. The process of breaking them down begins immediately. Upon arrival at the camp, called "zero day," inmates are subjected to a series of stressful situations designed to shock them psychologically and physically. As soon as they step off the bus, for example, they are put through a rigorous program of calisthenics while guards--here called drill instructors--scream orders.

On the day Quick arrived, his group of inmates was also repeatedly directed to rapidly exit and reboard their bus, an environment that created confusion and tension. Throughout the exercise--an operation guards refer to as the "initial incident"--the instructors moved among the prisoners, yelling at them to move faster and chesting them.

On May 3, two days after "zero day," Quick reported being assaulted during the initial incident. Because of the confusion created by the guards, however, he was unable to recognize the guard who supposedly grabbed him. The only identification he was able to come up with was a voice saying, "Watch my tactics; it will get them going."

The report was turned over to the camp's director, Major Mike Perry. Initially, Perry, all too familiar with inmates who manipulate guards and circumstances to their advantage, dismissed Quick's claims. But something about the abuse report caught Perry's attention: It was Quick's recollection of the word "tactic" just before he felt a hand close around his testicles. It was a military word, Perry realized, that was used frequently by the boot camp guards.

Ellsworth denied grabbing the inmate, but Perry contacted Quick the same day anyway and asked him to write an account of the incident. The camp director next called two officers who had worked under Ellsworth but had since been promoted. Perry reasoned that the two former guards--a man and a woman--would feel more free to tell the truth now that they no longer worked for Ellsworth. Both immediately confirmed Quick's account of the incident.

Not only that--both guards reported that it wasn't the first time they'd seen Ellsworth perform the ball-grab maneuver. The female guard, Rae Lewis, admitted she'd seen him grab other new inmates on "zero days" in February and March, too. Both she and the other former guard, William Mansheim, also confessed that they'd heard Ellsworth say words along the lines of "Watch this--it'll get them moving."

Yet both also conceded that they'd done nothing about Ellsworth's conduct. Lewis recalled laughing at Ellsworth and telling him his behavior was sick. For his part, Mansheim said he'd decided not to report the incidents because they would pit his word against his superior officer's. (The two were later disciplined for their inaction.)

Perry wrote up his report and submitted it to prison superintendent Gary Neet. Despite a medical report that showed Quick's testicles to be "tender" following zero day, Ellsworth again denied the charges in a hearing three weeks later. Oddly, backing him up was another inmate, Jason Archibeque, who claimed that Quick had admitted he was angry at the DOC and, as revenge, planned to make up a story of sexual assault by Ellsworth.

And Quick wasn't helping his own case. On May 10 he scrawled a letter and gave it to boot camp administrators. "I would like to make out what I would call an agreement paper," he proposed. After reminding them that he fully intended to file a lawsuit against the DOC, Quick wrote, "If I could be paroled home next month I would act as if it never happened." Prison officials say they never considered taking Quick up on his deal.

On May 28, Superintendent Neet reached his decision. He wrote to Ellsworth: "It is my opinion that you have abused your official authority through the unwarranted use of physical force on inmates."

While acknowledging Ellsworth's unblemished record until that point, Neet concluded that "had this been a single occurrence, a less severe sanction may have been warranted. However, it is my belief that there exists a pattern of offensive behavior that extends, at a minimum, over a four-month period of time; behavior which was premeditated, degrading, unethical, unprofessional, unwarranted and malicious."

Ellsworth was fired that same day. A month later, using the information gathered by DOC investigators, the Chaffee County District Attorney charged Ellsworth with sexual assault, assault and official oppression.

Since that time, Ellsworth has vigorously maintained his innocence. He has claimed that the reason Lewis and Mansheim squealed on him was that both guards disliked him. He appealed his firing, but in April 1997 a judge concluded that "the evidence presented amply supports the conclusion that [Ellsworth] physically abused inmate Jason Quick...and that he engaged in a pattern of physical abuse of inmates." Ellsworth has appealed his firing again, to the state Civil Service Commission; the case is pending.

In June 1997, Ellsworth agreed to a bargain with the Chaffee County DA, pleading no contest to official oppression. But when he heard the plea had earned him six months in jail, he tried to back out. After being bounced to county court and then district court, the question of whether or not he must stand by his plea last summer ended up at the state Supreme Court, where it sits to this day. Quick filed his promised lawsuit against the Department of Corrections about the same time that Ellsworth made his plea bargain.

Now 25, Quick is still in prison. His attorney, Morgan, says he was paroled recently only to be picked up after he ran away from a halfway house. Last month he was married in the Limon Correctional Facility. Since the incident at the boot camp, he has had two sperm counts taken, both of which confirmed his sterility.

Morgan admits that, in one sense, the case represents an instance of the system working as it should: An abusive guard was held responsible for his actions. But, he adds, on a larger scale, the case illustrates there is still work to be done in the prisons.

"It would seem that the DOC really isn't interested in finding out if there are any problems [in the boot camp]," he says. While Ellsworth may be gone, he adds, "you've still got a problem if there are officers who know of an assault and don't report it."

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