Marked for Death

Trapped in a prison race war, Tony Francis had three choices: kill, snitch or run. He found another way out.

According to figures provided by a BOP statistician at the Francis trial, the penitentiary has a high rate of other kinds of violence, too. During a seventeen-month period in 1997-98, the prison reported 94 inmate-on-inmate assaults, or roughly one stabbing or beating victim among every ten inmates. The true figure is probably higher, argues Haney attorney David Lane, because many assaults are never reported to authorities.

"If a convict kills a convict, it's like killing two birds with one stone," notes Lane. "That's one less to worry about, and maybe we can get the death penalty on the other convict, right? And nobody cares. Yet if there was a high school in Colorado, and once every ten months, one member of the student body viciously and brutally killed another, and every week someone was getting stabbed, that would be front-page news. Nobody would tolerate that for one minute. But that's exactly what's going on in Florence."

No prison is free of danger, of course, but few outsiders can comprehend the level of mayhem that now prevails at USP Florence. The Francis trial provided a rare glimpse into that dark and bloody world, where a thousand of the most violent criminals in the country have fashioned their own culture and rituals, their own rules for living and dying. It's a world where wrong is right and whirl is king, where weapons and homebrewed hooch are readily available, and racial hatred is not only tolerated but effectively sanctioned.

Hadley Hooper
For related stories see Crime and Punishment: Westword reporting on the Criminal Justice System and the Corrections Industry.

Francis's defense hinged on his insistence that, for him, there was no protection from the carnage. In Florence, the "safest" place, the SHU, is actually the most dangerous, a noisome, overcrowded and poorly supervised unit where new arrivals are at the mercy of the deranged and the damned. Terrible things happen in the SHU. One man strangled his cellmate and kept the corpse around for days before officials discovered the death. Two others disemboweled their victim and put his vital organs on display.

Lane describes the prisoners hauled into court to testify about Tony Francis's dilemma as "some of the baddest asses in the federal system." They were black and white, brown and red. Some were admitted gang leaders and would cheerfully have attacked each other in the right circumstances. But they all agreed on one thing: Federal penitentiaries are much more violent than state prisons, and Florence is one of the worst of all.

"That place," says Douglas Taylor, also known as "Saxon," leader of the 88 Skinheads, "is the intensest joint I've ever been in."

Q: If someone was a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, would he tell me?

A: For what reason? You'd have to go ask them...In prison, everything is rumor. It's a big gossip mill.

Q: It's all hearsay, right?

A: Yeah. But that doesn't stop people from dying.-- Cross-examination of Joseph Bryant McGee, convicted bank robber and USP inmate

The Bureau of Prisons operates 95 correctional facilities across the country. The vast majority of them are minimum-security camps, low- to medium-security prisons, or special detention and medical centers for illegal aliens, prisoners in transport, or the ailing and aged. The BOP's ten high-security penitentiaries, along with the Florence supermax, are reserved for the most violent, escape-prone or long-term problem cases.

Tony Francis started his federal-prison career in 1989 as a medium-security inmate. He was 25 years old, serving a nine-year sentence for armed bank robberies in Oregon and Idaho. Within a few months he earned a trip to a USP the old-fashioned way: He tried to escape.

In 1990 Francis was discovered lying facedown near the perimeter fence of Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Phoenix. A former hunting guide in the Northwest, he would later say he was having trouble adjusting to the notion that he was going to be locked up for nine years.

"At the time, it seemed like ninety," he testified last month. "I didn't care about anything."

Francis spent six months in "the hole" -- disciplinary segregation -- and then was transferred to USP Lewisburg in Pennsylvania. But he was brought back to Arizona in 1993 to face charges of attempted escape for his antics at FCI. In the intervening three years, Francis had almost forgotten about the offense; alarmed that he could now get an additional five years tacked onto his sentence, he began to plot another escape.

This time he was successful. Awaiting trial at Maricopa County's most secure jail, he managed to slip undetected through two electronic doors and hide inside a food cart, which an unsuspecting corrections officer wheeled from his unit to the jail's kitchen. Wearing the orange shirt of a trusty, Francis made his way from the kitchen to a loading dock, removed the shirt and fled bare-chested into the streets of Phoenix.

The next day he committed another bank robbery. The FBI soon placed him on the agency's list of the top fifteen fugitives, but Francis stayed out of their grasp for months. One evening, while hiding out in a motel room, he saw a picture of himself on the popular television program America's Most Wanted. The program described him as a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, the notorious white supremacist prison gang. That was news to him. He figured the BOP must have wanted him so badly that they fed the show a line of hooey.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help