Cowboy Justice

They ran the toughest cellblock in the most dangerous prison in the state. It was the perfect place to beat inmates.

After dismissing the jury, Judge Daniel ordered that the three convicted defendants be taken into custody. "The Court is concerned about their safety," he noted, assuring defense lawyers that at this point, they wouldn't be sent to a federal prison -- where, presumably, they might be beaten.

Schultz took off his coat and tie and prepared himself to be shackled.

Mike LaVallee was found guilty of beating inmates.
Mark Manger
Mike LaVallee was found guilty of beating inmates.
David Pruyne was acquitted.
Mark Manger
David Pruyne was acquitted.

"Among themselves, the guards are human. Among themselves, the prisoners are human. Yet between these two, the relationship is not human. It is animal." -- Jack Henry Abbott, In the Belly of the Beast

Why did it start? How did the relationship between guards and inmates in the Special Housing Unit at USP Florence become a real-life version of The Itchy and Scratchy Show?

To strike a man in a fit of rage is one thing. But to join with others in beating a man entrusted to your care is something else. To coolly select one who is in need of "the treatment," and then to pummel him in the ribs or kidneys; to pick up a handcuffed prisoner and drop him head first on the floor of his cell; to kick him in the crotch, knead his testicles or stomp on his neck when he is already on the ground -- that requires a professional commitment to violence, a conviction that brutality is an essential part of your job.

Of course, the job can't be performed properly without some form of official sanction -- without the blessing of supervisors, perhaps, or at least an understanding that the boss is willing to look the other way. But it also requires a core of dedicated, motivated employees. How did they get that way?

Despite the dozens of witnesses, the hundreds of exhibits and thousands of pages of documents presented at the Cowboys trial, the question of motive was scarcely addressed. The prosecutors tried to stay away from it entirely, arguing that no amount of provocation could justify the beatings. Motive was irrelevant, they told the jury; all they had to do was prove that the seven officers conspired to engage in "unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain and suffering under color of law," in violation of the prisoners' constitutional rights.

"The government is not required to offer a motive," said prosecutor Richard McNally of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. "We can't look in their hearts."

The defense attorneys weren't eager to go down that road, either. They promised the jurors "a tour of hell," then proceeded to numb them with U.S. Bureau of Prisons manuals and use-of-force procedures, as well as statistics on inmate violence and staff shortages, all to suggest that the guards in the dock had done no more than what was necessary to subdue out-of-control prisoners.

Brian Holland, for example, contended that his client, Robert Verbickas, was merely going by the book, taking "proactive efforts to prevent inmate disturbances" when he slammed cuffed inmate Keith Overstreet to the ground during an escort down a hallway. Verbickas claimed that Overstreet had tried to pull away from him. But Armstrong, the government's star witness, testified that Overstreet didn't try to pull away, that the takedown was one more shot at a man in chains after Armstrong and Verbickas had already beaten him in his cell. The jury found Verbickas not guilty in the incident.

When Mike LaVallee, the reputed leader of the posse, took the stand in his own defense, he brought with him a box of shanks -- homemade knives confiscated from inmates at USP Florence. It was tantamount to saying, See, any day one of us could die in there. But the box explained nothing. It couldn't explain the lies and subterfuges, the faked injuries and bogus memos, the elaborate arrangements the Cowboys had worked out among themselves for taking care of business in the SHU.

And it couldn't begin to explain a man like Mike LaVallee. LaVallee testified that he did nothing wrong, yet the government's witnesses portrayed him as a kind of high priest of the SHU's sacred mysteries, the man who most thoroughly embraced the Cowboy motto: "Lie till you die." No matter what official investigations might ensue, "Stick to your memo," he counseled one nervous colleague. "What starts in the SHU stays in the SHU," he allegedly told another.

LaVallee didn't always follow his own advice. Witnesses testified that he boasted in bars of the beatings and angrily confronted officers he didn't think were sufficiently loyal. A schoolteacher who visited his home said he told her he'd beaten an inmate so badly that day that he thought he'd killed him; the man started to convulse, but the beating continued.

These were rare glimpses, though, into a hidden world. Everyone understood that what happened in the SHU had to stay there. Cops and soldiers have similar sayings about what happens on the street or on patrol, and the Cowboys knew that ethic well; six of the seven indicted guards are ex-military. Several of them had gone through the BOP's training academy together in 1993, an initiation into the seal of silence and loyalty they would share.

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