Cowboy Justice

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

Nobody pays too much attention to what inmate Turner has to say. After four days of sitting in his own excrement and receiving minimal medical attention, his moaning stops. He offers a contrite apology to a guard, clearly eager to better his situation. Here he is, facing another ten years in prison -- and calmly consenting to the frame. Like Winston Smith in 1984, who appeases his keepers by acknowledging that two plus two equals five, he seems willing to confess to anything.

"I guess I blew up at Schultz," he mutters. "It was my fault. If you could relay that to the captain... Also, I've got two lawsuits. Tell him that I'm willing to tear them up. I don't even want to deal with that shit."

Turner learned his lesson well. What was real was not his aching ribs, but what the guards said was real. Nobody would ever believe anything different, especially if it came from the likes of William Turner.

Semper fi: Several of the acquitted officers are military 
veterans, including ex-Marine Ken Shatto, a platoon 
sergeant during the Gulf War.
Mark Manger
Semper fi: Several of the acquitted officers are military veterans, including ex-Marine Ken Shatto, a platoon sergeant during the Gulf War.

So it came to pass: What started in the SHU stayed in the SHU.

Except it didn't.

One of the more troubling questions to emerge from the Cowboys trial is how an alleged conspiracy of such magnitude, involving more than a dozen officers and spanning two and a half years, could go undetected for so long. So many crimes, so many constitutional violations committed by federal employees inside a high-security federal institution -- wasn't anybody paying any attention?

Prosecutors say the isolated nature of the SHU helped to conceal what was going on. Captain Hines had a great deal of control over which officers were assigned to the SHU, and those officers controlled access to the unit. The inmates were locked away from the world, their injuries dutifully explained away in memos and minimized by medical staff who were willing to cover for the officers. "The SHU was the perfect place to beat inmates," Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Mydans said.

Nonsense, responded defense lawyers, who pointed out that there was an endless parade of people through the SHU: wardens, associate wardens, captains and lieutenants, food-service personnel, physicians' assistants. At the end of his closing argument, Tom Hammond, LaVallee's attorney, thumped the lectern repeatedly, ridiculing the notion that other staff could be kept waiting, "knocking at the door" of the SHU until the Cowboys were through beating someone. It was absurd to believe that so many beatings could occur and nobody outside the unit would know, he argued.

Yet there is reason to believe that many people outside the SHU did know about the beatings. They just didn't do anything about it. They didn't take the information seriously, they didn't care, or they were scared.

As early as 1995, Chris Kester, a representative of the guards' union who worked in the SHU, had gone to warden Joel Knowles about the injured inmates he saw when he arrived for his shift. Knowles discounted the stories, though, and Kester's subsequent efforts to go up the ladder -- meetings with top-ranking BOP officials, calls for a congressional investigation -- led nowhere. (According to Schultz, Kester was trying to "bring down" officers who challenged his leadership.)

In fact, the most tangible result of Kester's efforts was the growing rank-and-file hostility toward union reps who failed to support their brother officers. After a shakeup in leadership of the guards' local, the union began taking a more sympathetic position concerning the Cowboys, regarding them as fall guys targeted by ambitious Department of Justice lawyers ("The Cowboy Way," November 23, 2000). The DOJ routinely defends high-ranking prison officials in prisoner lawsuits, union officials noted, while leaving lowly line officers to hire their own attorneys.

Plenty of inmates complained, too, but they fared worse than Kester. After all, inmates always complain, and nobody pays them any mind. Called to the stand to account for his findings that inmates had consistently assaulted staff in the SHU, not the other way around, a disciplinary hearing officer explained that in 12,000 hearings, he'd never taken the word of an inmate over that of a guard without persuasive supporting evidence. But the supporting evidence -- the memos, the photos of officer injuries, the medical reports -- was invariably on the guards' side.

So when the complaints did produce an investigation, either by the BOP's own snoops or by the FBI, it was a perfunctory effort that couldn't pierce the wall of paperwork the Cowboys had erected around their activities. The investigators would talk to the guards and read the documents. Then they'd dismiss what the inmates said as -- well, the kind of thing inmates say. What was real was what was on paper.

If they'd looked closely at the paperwork, they might have detected some problems. They might have noticed, for instance, that the guards seemed to have collaborated on their reports of the Turner incident, right down to the same misspellings in identical accounts of how Turner "began to viscously [sic] stab" Schultz while "fanatically" screaming.

But they had no reason to be suspicious. In a sense, they were unwitting accomplices in the conspiracy themselves, part of the same system, a system that brutalized prisoners and corrections officers alike and never attached much value to either group. All they had to go on were inmate complaints, and everybody knew that inmates were liars.

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