The Cowboy Way

Federal prison guards accused of beating inmates have their own support group -- the officers' union.

For many union stalwarts, the fact that only line officers have been charged in the case confirms their long-held belief that Bureau of Prisons administrators protect their own while leaving the troops to fend for themselves. Attorneys for the inmates have suggested that the Cowboys couldn't have operated so long without some degree of official sanction, but no prison officials are named in the indictment -- despite the claim that LaVallee allegedly boasted to other officers that he had a "green light" from an unnamed supervisor to "take care of business."

According to Armstrong's testimony, the beatings began in response to staff frustration over the administration's perceived lenient treatment of "problem" prisoners who were known to be disruptive or to assault guards. Most of the incidents occurred in the penitentiary's overcrowded special housing unit, or SHU, which houses disciplinary cases and gang leaders, as well as inmates seeking protective custody.

Prisoners claim that officially condoned brutality in the SHU has been even more widespread than the indictments would suggest. One civil lawsuit, which has been moving slowly toward trial for the past four years, concerns the case of Scott Rollins, a convicted bank robber who was assaulted in the SHU in 1996. Rollins claims that he was deliberately placed in a cell with a known enemy, over his protests, then nearly killed by the other inmate. None of the officers named in Rollins's suit were part of the so-called Cowboys, and prison officials have denied any misconduct in the incident.

Union members protest outside the Florence federal prison complex on October 18.
Alan Prendergast
Union members protest outside the Florence federal prison complex on October 18.

"There seem to be some disturbing incidents of inmate-on-inmate violence in that unit," says Rollins attorney Thomas Birge.

That's an understatement. There have been three murders in the SHU during the past four years, including the horrific disembowelment last year of a bank robber named Joey Estrella ("Marked for Death," May 25). According to staff sources, the officers who arrived to videotape the bloody crime scene found Estrella's two cellmates displaying his entrails to other prisoners; one held up the victim's mutilated liver and asked the officers if they were hungry.

No charges have been filed yet in Estrella's murder, but the exceptionally gruesome nature of his death remains a grim reminder of how cheap life can be in a place like the SHU, and how the penitentiary environment can brutalize inmates and officers alike. Union officials say that they want the public to know what their members are up against -- outmanned, underpaid and often unarmed -- and withhold judgment on the indicted officers until all the facts are known.

"The public doesn't want to know that there are 35 new federal prisons coming on line in the next few years," says AFGE national officer Gerry Swanke. "They don't want to know that federal employees are being bombarded by HIV-infected feces. When something bad happens, our people are the ones with the squeegees who have to go in there and clean up the mess."

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