A Broken Code
It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.
Last year, when several individual defectors from the Aryan Brotherhood, the notorious white-supremacist prison gang, expressed an interest in cooperating with the government against their own, federal officials rose to the occasion like Shriners at a testimonial dinner. They established a top-secret intelligence unit to house the inmates within the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum, better known as ADX, where the nation's most dangerous prisoners are locked down 22 hours a day.
Located outside Florence and guarded by more layers of security than any other American prison, the federal supermax presented the perfect setting for an ongoing "debriefing" process that would help authorities make cases against incarcerated gang members as well as those on the street. Prison officials also hoped to learn more about how inmates obtained weapons and passed messages, even in lockdown, and to identify staff members who'd grown too cozy with the gangs or were on their payroll.
For related stories, see Crime and Punishment: Westword reporting on the criminal justice system and corrections industry.
The plan was impressive. It might even have worked -- assuming, of course, that the prisoners were working for the government, not the other way around.
But informants have their own ideas about loyalty. Just ask Danny Weeks -- career criminal, ex-AB and, until recently, a resident of H Unit, the special limited-access range within ADX that became home to the top snitches. A year after he rolled over on his Aryan Brotherhood homies, Weeks is now snitching on the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, claiming that the intelligence operation was largely a fraud engineered by prisoners who exaggerated their gang status and knowledge of criminal activity within ADX to curry favor and win extraordinary privileges.
The whole time inmates were divulging their methods for breaching security and manipulating staff, even starring in training videos revealing their techniques, they were actually conning their handlers, Weeks says. He contends that the officials running the unit were so impressed with the revelations that they rewarded the elite team with perks and benefits that violated policy and quite possibly security at ADX, including special meals and X-rated entertainment; handcuff keys and materials to make weapons; a computer with Internet access; and promises of pay and transfers to less-secure prisons. Most disturbing of all, Weeks says, the prisoners were provided with sensitive information about other inmates, corrections officers and ongoing criminal investigations -- including at least one international drug case -- and some of that confidential material was smuggled out of the prison.
"Inmates who roll out can say anything to win placement in easier pens," Weeks wrote in a letter to Westword recently. "I don't like it here, but I will not see innocent people get locked up on the lies of people willing to say or do anything to better their positions."
Bureau of Prisons officials won't comment on the specifics of Weeks's allegations, which are being investigated by the bureau's Office of Internal Affairs. ADX warden Michael Pugh, who insists that no security violations occurred, denied Westword's request to visit Weeks, on the grounds that an interview "could cause undue unrest or disturb the good order of the institution." Even a request for a photo of Weeks received no reply from the BOP's Freedom of Information Act office, despite a federal law that requires a prompt response.
Yet key elements of Weeks's story have been corroborated through other sources. Internal BOP memoranda document several staff concerns about security in H Unit, including objections to providing tools and unusual privileges to high-security prisoners. ADX has been embroiled in a series of labor disputes since Warden Pugh's arrival two years ago ("Look for the Union URL," February 17), and some employees accuse him of seeking to use H Unit to "get dirt" on certain staffers in an effort to silence the correction officers' union. And information drawn from a Drug Enforcement Administration investigation of drug smuggling in Mexico and Texas, complete with suspects' names and their identifying DEA file numbers, has surfaced in a public court record, as exhibits attached to a civil lawsuit filed by Weeks and another prisoner.
"There's a legitimate benefit in debriefing inmates, but they've taken it too far," says one ADX officer, who requested anonymity. "These guys are so skilled at manipulating staff, and [administrators] don't realize that they're being manipulated, too."
But Warden Pugh, while declining comment on Weeks's case, says the staff complaints about alleged security violations are greatly exaggerated. "The people you're talking to have an agenda," he says. "We're running an institution here that has a lot of integrity. There are staff and inmates who might have a problem with what we do -- for the wrong reasons. Much of the information they've fed you are flat-out vicious lies."
Convicted of kidnapping and other charges stemming from a crime spree twelve years ago, the 46-year-old Weeks is serving what amounts to a life sentence (his expected parole date falls just short of his 93rd birthday). He describes himself as a former "shot-caller" in the Aryan Brotherhood who had a falling-out with the top leadership over the race war that rocked the federal prison system in the late 1990s ("Marked for Death," May 25). Last summer he sought protection from his former buddies, promising ADX officials he could provide information on staff who'd "crossed the line" in their friendly dealings with prison gangs.
After several discreet meetings with intelligence officers, Weeks was moved to a secluded range in H Unit, where access by staff was strictly limited. To his surprise, some prominent ex-AB members were already housed there, having rolled over weeks or months earlier. In exchange for helping to unravel the intricacies of the AB's structure, plots and communication network, Weeks says, the turncoats received many amenities, including pizza, ribs and burgers from town (one employee recalls bags bearing the Carl's Jr. logo vanishing into the unit); color televisions with remote control and a VCR, as well as commercial R- and X-rated video rentals; cigarette lighters, paint and other items normally prohibited to supermax prisoners; and permission to move through the halls without handcuffs or other restraints. One prisoner even had a laptop computer in his cell, Weeks insists, with access to the Internet via the BOP mainframe.
Pugh disputes the account of special meals or other treatment. Inmates in three units at ADX are allowed out of their cells without restraints, he notes, but they are always escorted, and use of equipment such as a computer would be closely supervised. "I know they did use a computer," the warden says, "but I was told these were computers with extremely limited capabilities. To my knowledge, no inmate in this institution has ever had Internet access."
Last winter, BOP officials videotaped several members of the snitch squad for training purposes. Wearing masks or otherwise disguised, the group performed skits showing "how to compromise staff," how to procure drugs by phone and how to make weapons and escape tools. Readily available commissary items such as shaving powder, hair cream and coffee creamer served as raw material for smoke bombs, fire bombs and disfiguring hot-oil baths; blow guns and crossbows were fashioned from magazines and underwear elastic. Weeks says the crew was provided with considerable assistance in putting on their show, including the use of actual handcuff keys, which they used to model their copies.
Although the tapes have not been approved as official BOP training videos, Pugh acknowledges that they have been shown to ADX staff at annual "refresher" training sessions. "I want staff to know what's going on in this institution," he says. But the warden denies that the group had access to any prohibited materials. "They were not given anything that was not authorized, particularly handcuff keys."
Staffers who have seen the videos report mixed reactions. The tapes were instructive -- "What these inmates said woke people up from their complacency," one source notes -- but some viewers were appalled at scenes of masked prisoners, armed with real knives, simulating an attack on other inmates (actually corrections officers dressed as inmates). "This is big news around the bureau," says one officer. "These are real hardcore individuals, and to show them like that, even for training, causes problems."
Another kind of show-and-tell took place in the cells of H Unit. Weeks says the prisoners were allowed to read other inmates' mail, searching for coded gang messages. They were shown photo albums that contained ADX employees' pictures and work histories, then asked to point out guards they suspected of working with the gangs. They were visited by federal prosecutors and were permitted to pore over confidential government files from pending criminal investigations involving former associates.
According to Weeks, one of his colleagues used the photo albums to pick out every guard "who had been rude to him" and urged a BOP official to investigate them. Others exaggerated their importance in the AB and claimed to have intimate knowledge of spectacular criminal conspiracies, such as the scoop on a $500,000 murder contract that imprisoned mob boss John Gotti was supposedly shopping through the white gangs. In some cases, details were cadged from the materials investigators provided in order to make the snitches seem more credible. "We would theorize what certain things meant and embellish everything to make us look good," Weeks reports.
No criminal charges have resulted from the group's accusations against ADX staff, but the investigation of veteran guards did little for morale and may have played a part in the assignment of one officer, Joe Principe, to "home duty" for months. Weeks says other inmates in H Unit lied about Principe's involvement in various schemes as part of their plan to convince their handlers "that half of the cops here were helping the AB and that the AB was the most sophisticated bunch of dudes to ever come down the pike."
A former union steward and outspoken critic of Warden Pugh, Principe continued to draw pay for his duty-less home assignment until he ran into deeper trouble last spring. In March he was arrested for allegedly assaulting an ex-girlfriend and a drug dealer. Now residing in the Fremont County jail, awaiting trial on more than a dozen charges, Principe denies that he had any dealings with the AB; he blames his current difficulties on domestic problems and the stress of battling unfounded accusations at work.
"This is the age of the snitch," Principe says. "They were so afraid of looking bad that they had to give up somebody. When you go through something like this, you realize how corrupt our system is."
As for H Unit's assistance in building cases against criminals on the street, Weeks claims that several cases, including a major conspiracy case in California, may have been jeopardized by false information supplied by the inmate "consultants." He also charges that some confidential files given to the crew for review were stolen or copied and smuggled out of the prison. He placed information culled from a DEA file into a prisoner lawsuit to demonstrate how easily the material could leak out, he says.
"This file had a massive amount of very sensitive documents, and I knew I should never have been allowed to get possession of something like this," Weeks says. "But I had it, and I read everything in it."
Pugh says he doesn't know where Weeks got the list of DEA suspects he sent on to court. "I have no reason to believe at this point that we gave them any sensitive information that they could have mailed out of this institution," he says. "All of those allegations are currently under investigation."
Four months ago Weeks was moved out of H Unit and into a lockdown cell with no privileges. He says other prisoners campaigned for his removal because he refused to back up their lies; another source hints that investigators may have had problems with his credibility. The current status of the snitch squad is unknown. Weeks says several members have been moved out and are, like him, waiting to see if the government will make good on its promises of safe relocation.
As long as he remains at ADX, "Weeks is in a bad situation," acknowledges one officer. "He tried to snitch and got thrown out. He's a dead man."
Weeks insists he was following his conscience. "I'm in big trouble for taking this stand," he says, "and even when all is said and done, I know few, if any, will appreciate me for it. But it's me that lives with me."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.