Marked for Death

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

Until that day, Tony Francis's life at Florence had been uneventful. But that quickly changed. Salaam had only recently arrived at Lewisburg; before that, he'd been a popular prisoner at Florence. His killers had also come from Florence. The warden of Lewisburg would later state that he had "absolutely no doubt" that the murders of Salaam and Joyner had been ordered by AB leaders in Florence.

And here was Tony Francis, a new guy from Lewisburg who'd landed in Florence, where Salaam still had a lot of friends. A new white guy from Lewisburg who was supposed to be an Aryan Brotherhood hotshot.

Florence was locked down for several days following the Lewisburg murders. The warden's office was inundated with snitch reports -- claims that one inmate or another was going to be hit, or that there was going to be a "diversion" in one unit and a massacre in another. A shakedown of cells turned up nine weapons. A search of the yard and other common areas turned up ten more.

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

When the lockdown ended and inmates were allowed back on the yard, fear was everywhere. Whites huddled with whites, blacks with blacks, eyeing each other. "It was tense," Francis testified. "Everybody was waiting for something to happen."

Several days into the standoff, three black inmates Francis had never seen before approached him on the yard. "They said they saw me on America's Most Wanted and that when the shit jumps off, I'd know what time it was."

"What did you understand that to mean?" Yunker asked him.

"If there was going to be a war, I was going to be one of the first ones targeted."

Francis said that he later approached one of the men who'd threatened him while he was working out at the weight pile. He tried to tell the man that the TV report was wrong -- he wasn't AB or any kind of gang member. The man didn't seem to care. Confessing he wasn't AB may have actually made things worse for Francis; it meant he had no backup. Or, as Saxon Taylor explained it to the Francis jury: "If you're a skinhead or AB, you might be a target, but they know they can't move on you without retaliation. But if you're labeled that and you're not, you're in a wreck."

Federal prosecutor Tim Neff suggested that Francis should have reported the threat to authorities. But seeking protective custody in the SHU -- a process known as "PC-ing" or "checking in" -- was never an option, Francis insisted, for a variety of reasons.

"The rumor [about being a gang member] was, I feel, started by the BOP in the first place," he said. "I didn't see how I could go to them. And protective custody -- it's not secure. It's not protection."

Francis knew what every convict knows: Anybody who checks in, whatever the reason, is considered a snitch. A check-in is collaborating with the guards and therefore can't be trusted. He has violated the convicts' code, which, according to Joseph Leissler, has one paramount rule: "Not to be a rat, number one. People place themselves in PC because they owe money, or fear for their lives, or something happens and they're not man enough to deal with it. They have no code of honor. They would sell their own mother out."

Francis knew that if he was tagged as a snitch, he would become even more of a target -- not only for the blacks, but for the white gangs as well. Although there are federal prisoners who serve almost their entire sentence in protective custody, Francis figured he couldn't stay out of reach of so many possible enemies forever. He had read about a riot at a state prison in Montana in which marauders had broken into the SHU with the express purpose of murdering the snitches.

At Florence, it wouldn't be nearly that difficult. In federal pens, the SHU doesn't just house check-ins; it's also where the BOP seeks to isolate gang leaders and discipline cases. The ten penitentiaries now have a population that's more than 50 percent over the intended capacity; USP Florence, originally designed for 586 inmates, has close to 1,000. The overcrowding means it's almost impossible to obtain a single cell, even as a protective-custody case. Double-celling, even triple-celling, isn't unusual in the SHU, and the guards don't always keep track of which inmates are supposed to be isolated from one another. A check-in just has to pray that he isn't bunking with his worst nightmare, someone like Mirssa Araiza-Reyes.

Or, for that matter, someone like Saxon Taylor, or any other adherent to the convict code. "Any time you see a check-in, you're obligated to split their metal," Taylor declared.

Joseph Leissler has spent roughly half his prison time in the SHU. But that was because of disciplinary reasons, not because he checked in voluntarily. Last year he was put in a cell in Florence with an inmate who, when he was ordered to return to general population, refused to go. That was all Leissler had to hear to know that his cellmate was a check-in. "He PC'd up right in front of my face," Leissler recalled. "I did what I had to do." Leissler was charged with assault for attacking his cellmate. He spent some more time in the hole, then was moved from Florence to Leavenworth.

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