Bringing Down the Brotherhood

Inside the fedsí war on the countryís deadliest prison gang: 16 murders, 21 death-penalty cases, and snitches galore.

The rumor mill went crazy. For every one of ours they execute, the AB types were reportedly saying, we're going to take out two guards.

Principe scarcely slept during his first eight days in the hole. He'd seen hardened cons crack up in places like this. He was a rookie and knew it. How was he going to endure it?

Crossing over: Former prison guard Joe Principe at 
the time of his 2000 arrest (from left), in the hole, and 
Crossing over: Former prison guard Joe Principe at the time of his 2000 arrest (from left), in the hole, and today.

He got busy. He grabbed stacks of paperbacks off the book cart. He read Melville, Tolstoy, Hesse, Emerson, Dumas, Voltaire, Dostoyevsky, Hemingway. He read Don Quixote, then tackled it again, this time in Spanish.

He studied books on writing and labored over his own letters. "These concrete cages can birth geniuses and madmen, monks and monsters, if strong wills prevail," he wrote.

For exercise, there was just room enough in his cell to do burpees -- a hybrid of jumping jack and push-up, popular among the military and convicts. When he started, he could barely do fifty of them at a time. Before long, he could do 500. When he was taken out to the yard, he was often allowed a recreation cage next to another AB defendant who became his workout partner. The guards who escorted him were basically doing the same thing he was accused of doing at ADX, but no one nailed them with conspiracy charges.

He read through piles of reports, the discovery in his case. There was nothing anywhere to establish that he'd ever been paid to help the AB, that he had benefited in any way from this vast conspiracy.

He meditated. He prayed.

The feds came back to see him every few months. Was he ready to cooperate? Did he want to strike a deal in exchange for a nicer cell? The case kept getting continued, delayed, dragged out.

"For the first year, I was focused," Principe says. "I was intact. Then it started to change."

There are stages a person goes through when suffering sensory deprivation -- "SHU syndrome," as it's known in special housing units. At one point, everything the staff did seemed to annoy Principe. He began to believe they were going out of their way to mess with him. He became angry at the slightest provocation. The walls closed in.

The extraction teams were called. Principe took the pepper spray and shouted defiance. He did his best to wear them out. He was turning into one of the crazies he used to dread dealing with.

It is not a time he wants to talk about now. "You have no idea what it was like," he says. "They break you down to the point where you're ready to make a deal."

He would not become a snitch. He was adamant about that; besides, what did he really know that could interest them? But the prosecutors were eager to deal anyway. They wanted to plead out the lesser charges without exposing too much of their hand in the death-penalty cases. After two years in the hole, Principe was presented with a "global plea agreement," designed to settle the charges against multiple defendants. The catch was they'd all have to sign off on it, or no deal -- a neat way of getting the defendants to pressure each other to get on board.

Assistant U.S Attorney Jessner was handing out good deals, Principe says. He was a regular Monty Hall. "I wanted to go to trial," Principe insists, "but my attorney explained to me that the jury would be listening to Bentley and Roach, and if the jury believed them, I'd be looking at a lot more time. I didn't know what I should do. It was one of the most grueling decisions of my life. I wanted to clear my name, but maybe the wise thing to do was to let it go."

In February he pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit racketeering. He got fifteen months, to be served concurrent with the state time he was already doing for the assault on Gino. The prosecution wanted to close the hearing to reporters, but Principe insisted on it's being open. He wanted everybody to know that his deal included no pledge of cooperation in other cases. He wasn't a witness for the prosecution or the defense. He was done.

He returned to Colorado to serve his time. The biggest capital case in the nation's history lurched on without him. He concentrated on learning to walk in regular strides again. All that time in the hole and in leg irons had left his calf muscles atrophied, best suited for shuffling half-steps.

He was going to fix that. He was going to do his time standing up, walking the yard like a regular convict.

"The only thing I got going for me is I held my mud through this," he says. "This has been a humongous humble pie -- a whole pie, being force-fed to me from day one -- to go from that side to this side. Humility is, I guess, a good thing."

He looks around him, at the guards, the prisoners, the red line, as if seeing it all for the first time.

"I'm ready for a break," he says.

for related stories visit our "Crime and Punishment" archive.

« Previous Page
My Voice Nation Help