Cowboy Justice

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

They were still relatively young, inexperienced corrections officers when they arrived at USP Florence a few months later -- a new prison that was already home to more than a thousand high-security inmates, close to double the number it was designed for.

Penitentiaries such as USP Florence are the dumping ground of the federal system, reserved for the most violent, escape-prone or long-term problem prisoners. Officially, "the worst of the worst," including convicted terrorists and gang leaders, are sent to the Florence supermax, the highest-security prison in the country, across the road from the USP. But any corrections officer will tell you that the USP is a far more dangerous assignment.

David Pruyne was acquitted.
Mark Manger
David Pruyne was acquitted.
David Pruyne was acquitted.
Mark Manger
David Pruyne was acquitted.

In the supermax, prisoners are rarely out of their cells, and the staff-to-inmate ratio is high. At USP Florence, depending on the shift, guards are outnumbered as much as ten to one by prisoners, many of whom belong to the Aryan Brotherhood, the Mexican Mafia, the DC Blacks or one of forty other prison gangs. There were eight inmate homicides in the prison's first seven years of operation and close to one hundred inmate-on-inmate assaults in one seventeen-month period.

Prisoners who attack other prisoners or guards are removed from general population and sent to the Special Housing Unit -- along with the deranged, the gangbangers and the protective-custody cases. The SHU at the Florence pen soon became so crowded that double-bunking was the norm. Far from being a deterrent to violence, the segregation unit emerged as the most dangerous place in the prison, for inmates and guards alike.

By early 1995, the situation had reached a boiling point. An influx of hard-core gang members from other prisons had produced a rash of assaults on staff and filled up the SHU. The administration's solution to bad behavior was simple: loss of privileges, more time in the SHU. This was little comfort to the guards who worked in the SHU, dealing daily with men who cursed them, spat on them, shit-bombed them or ejaculated through their cell's food-slot door. What could be done to control hard cases and nutjobs who had so little left to lose?

According to prosecutors, it was around this time that Mike LaVallee told other officers he'd been given a "green light" by Captain Terry Hines, overlord of the SHU, to take care of business. Hines was a mentor to the young Cowboys, a veteran officer who told jaw-dropping stories about the good old days at USP Marion, the Illinois pen that had replaced Alcatraz as the toughest joint in the system until the Florence supermax opened in 1994.

One witness would later recall Hines bragging about his boys at Marion, who were sharp enough to drag inmates into an elevator, away from any cameras, in order to administer correction. "You haven't done anything until you've been suspended one time," Hines allegedly told his green troops at Florence.

Hines, who left Florence in 1996 and became an associate warden at a prison in Pennsylvania, was never charged in the investigation. He appeared at the Cowboys trial as a defense witness, sparring with prosecutors and denying the "green light" conversation or any knowledge of officer misconduct. But Armstrong claimed to have had a similar conversation with Hines about doing what had to be done.

Like a lot of officers in the SHU, Armstrong was disgusted by the administration's lack of backbone in dealing with mouthy, belligerent prisoners. In 1995 he was 29 years old, around the same age as most of the other Cowboys, and not inclined to take crap from lowlifes. He became an enthusiastic participant in more than a dozen beatings of prisoners -- too many, he told the jury, to remember them all.

Armstrong beat inmate Kevin Gilbeaux -- with the assistance of barrel-chested guard David Pruyne, he says, who packed a mean two-handed punch. (It was Pruyne who supposedly gave the group its nickname, boasting to inmates that the guards had their own gang, the Cowboys; he was acquitted of the Gilbeaux beating.) Armstrong also brought inmate Felton Wiggins into the SHU, then joined in a mass thumping of him with a group of fellow Cowboys -- including, he says, Brent Gall, Ken Shatto and Rod Schultz.

At trial, there was considerable dispute over whether Gall was present for the Wiggins episode, or whether it even happened the way Armstrong described. But one officer was so disturbed by the whole business that he vowed never to do another prisoner escort with Armstrong.

The preferred method of instruction involved punches and kicks to the chest and abdomen, to minimize bruising, but it didn't always work that way. Heads were slammed into walls, bodies hurled to the floor. The injuries could always be explained, as long as everyone kept his story straight and stuck to his memos -- which usually reported a justifiable use of force on an inmate who was combative, self-mutilating or just plain crazy.

Of course, not every officer in the SHU was involved. But no one who worked with the Cowboys reported the beatings, not for years. Loyalty may have played a part, or maybe it was because, as prosecution witnesses suggested, the Cowboys had no more affection for snitches than the inmates; they might be slow to respond to a colleague's body alarm if he or she was telling tales out of school.

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