A Broken Code

The supermax snitch unit was supposed to bust prison gangs, but who was really rolling over?

After several discreet meetings with intelligence officers, Weeks was moved to a secluded range in H Unit, where access by staff was strictly limited. To his surprise, some prominent ex-AB members were already housed there, having rolled over weeks or months earlier. In exchange for helping to unravel the intricacies of the AB's structure, plots and communication network, Weeks says, the turncoats received many amenities, including pizza, ribs and burgers from town (one employee recalls bags bearing the Carl's Jr. logo vanishing into the unit); color televisions with remote control and a VCR, as well as commercial R- and X-rated video rentals; cigarette lighters, paint and other items normally prohibited to supermax prisoners; and permission to move through the halls without handcuffs or other restraints. One prisoner even had a laptop computer in his cell, Weeks insists, with access to the Internet via the BOP mainframe.

Pugh disputes the account of special meals or other treatment. Inmates in three units at ADX are allowed out of their cells without restraints, he notes, but they are always escorted, and use of equipment such as a computer would be closely supervised. "I know they did use a computer," the warden says, "but I was told these were computers with extremely limited capabilities. To my knowledge, no inmate in this institution has ever had Internet access."

Last winter, BOP officials videotaped several members of the snitch squad for training purposes. Wearing masks or otherwise disguised, the group performed skits showing "how to compromise staff," how to procure drugs by phone and how to make weapons and escape tools. Readily available commissary items such as shaving powder, hair cream and coffee creamer served as raw material for smoke bombs, fire bombs and disfiguring hot-oil baths; blow guns and crossbows were fashioned from magazines and underwear elastic. Weeks says the crew was provided with considerable assistance in putting on their show, including the use of actual handcuff keys, which they used to model their copies.

Although the tapes have not been approved as official BOP training videos, Pugh acknowledges that they have been shown to ADX staff at annual "refresher" training sessions. "I want staff to know what's going on in this institution," he says. But the warden denies that the group had access to any prohibited materials. "They were not given anything that was not authorized, particularly handcuff keys."

Staffers who have seen the videos report mixed reactions. The tapes were instructive -- "What these inmates said woke people up from their complacency," one source notes -- but some viewers were appalled at scenes of masked prisoners, armed with real knives, simulating an attack on other inmates (actually corrections officers dressed as inmates). "This is big news around the bureau," says one officer. "These are real hardcore individuals, and to show them like that, even for training, causes problems."

Another kind of show-and-tell took place in the cells of H Unit. Weeks says the prisoners were allowed to read other inmates' mail, searching for coded gang messages. They were shown photo albums that contained ADX employees' pictures and work histories, then asked to point out guards they suspected of working with the gangs. They were visited by federal prosecutors and were permitted to pore over confidential government files from pending criminal investigations involving former associates.

According to Weeks, one of his colleagues used the photo albums to pick out every guard "who had been rude to him" and urged a BOP official to investigate them. Others exaggerated their importance in the AB and claimed to have intimate knowledge of spectacular criminal conspiracies, such as the scoop on a $500,000 murder contract that imprisoned mob boss John Gotti was supposedly shopping through the white gangs. In some cases, details were cadged from the materials investigators provided in order to make the snitches seem more credible. "We would theorize what certain things meant and embellish everything to make us look good," Weeks reports.

No criminal charges have resulted from the group's accusations against ADX staff, but the investigation of veteran guards did little for morale and may have played a part in the assignment of one officer, Joe Principe, to "home duty" for months. Weeks says other inmates in H Unit lied about Principe's involvement in various schemes as part of their plan to convince their handlers "that half of the cops here were helping the AB and that the AB was the most sophisticated bunch of dudes to ever come down the pike."

A former union steward and outspoken critic of Warden Pugh, Principe continued to draw pay for his duty-less home assignment until he ran into deeper trouble last spring. In March he was arrested for allegedly assaulting an ex-girlfriend and a drug dealer. Now residing in the Fremont County jail, awaiting trial on more than a dozen charges, Principe denies that he had any dealings with the AB; he blames his current difficulties on domestic problems and the stress of battling unfounded accusations at work.

"This is the age of the snitch," Principe says. "They were so afraid of looking bad that they had to give up somebody. When you go through something like this, you realize how corrupt our system is."

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