Marked for Death

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

Haney first met Francis in 1991. They lifted weights together at Lewisburg, played handball together after Francis showed up at Florence. When Francis told him about the threat on his life, Haney offered to "get some knives" and stand by him.

"Tony didn't want to do that," Haney said. "I could kind of understand. If I had five years left instead of fifteen, I don't know what I would have done."

What Tony wanted to do was escape. Haney wasn't exactly wild about going along -- "If I wanted to escape, I wouldn't have waited until I got to the highest-security pen I've ever been in," he said -- but he agreed to help with the plan.

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

Francis was an orderly on his unit and had ready access to most of what he needed, including bedsheets, shoelaces, belts and broom handles. He dyed the sheets brown for camouflage material, made poles out of the broom handles and asked Haney to sew together the belts, which he planned to fashion into ladders.

On October 3, Francis hauled the equipment to a hiding place on the yard, making several trips. To his amazement, no guard challenged him. When the yard closed at seven that night, he and Haney concealed themselves. Soon they were alone. But it was at that point, somewhere between seven and eight o'clock, that Haney announced he wasn't going over the wall.

Francis was furious. He couldn't make it without Haney's help. But Haney told him he was deluding himself, that they were almost certain to get caught and possibly shot by guards in the towers as soon as they climbed to the roof. The two argued heatedly.

Haney's counterproposal was simple: All the escape jazz made for a perfect check-in move. If they were found on the yard, they'd get thrown in the SHU and possibly transferred to another prison. At the very least, they'd wind up in single cells for a while. No one would even suspect that it was a check-in. "All you got to do is get caught and they'll take you out of this mix," he said.

Francis decided Haney's plan made sense. He didn't have much choice; Haney made it clear that he would stop him if he tried to go over the wall. But getting caught was harder than it looked. They couldn't just run up to a guard. So for the next hour and a half they wandered around the yard, waving their poles around, standing in conspicuous places.

"We agreed to be seen but not to make it look like a check-in thing," Francis said. "But we weren't being seen. I guess the camouflage worked better than I thought. Officers walked by at a distance and didn't see us."

Finally, Officer Garcia came close enough to spot them, and Francis told him that they were Special Forces.

"Those were the words of an exasperated man," Francis explained in court. "The officer asked me, "What are you doing?' It seemed like the stupidest question I ever heard."

Q: What about protective custody?

A: It looks good on paper. "He's in protective custody' -- but he's in the SHU with anybody and everybody. There's people been beat, stabbed, or sliced. It's because it became known he was a snitch, a check-in. It's a common occurrence. A new guy comes in, you ask, "What are you in for?' "I don't want to talk about it' -- that's a clue. "Well, let me see your paperwork.' If he refuses to go back to general population, he's no good. If you're weak enough to check in, you're weak enough to tell [inform]. I don't want you around.-- Cross-examination of Robert Haney

Last October there was another murder in the SHU at Florence. The killing and gutting of Joey Estrella, convicted bank robber, took considerable time and resolve.

The Estrella slaying is remarkable not only for its savagery but for the complete absence of any staff intervention in the slaughter -- despite the increased monitoring of the SHU that was promised after the Melendez murder two years earlier; despite the supposed cleanup of the unit that was supposed to be a result of the Justice Department investigation into staff corruption and abuse of inmates.

No charges have been filed yet in Estrella's death. Prosecutors take their sweet time seeking justice for dead inmates, reasoning that the killers aren't going anywhere. BOP officials say they can't comment on a pending investigation and refer inquiries to the FBI, which will say only that the investigation is continuing.

The killing was so grotesque, though, that it quickly became the stuff of bloody folklore among prisoners and guards alike. One rumor had it that a couple of Hannibal Lecters had killed Estrella and devoured his liver, in full view of a grossed-out audience in the SHU. Another version, popular among corrections officers, had it that Estrella was shooting heroin with two prisoners from Guam and had swallowed a balloon of the drug for safekeeping. When he had difficulty passing the balloon, his two impatient roommates decided to perform surgery and extract it themselves.

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