The world may be a safer place with Jeffery Thomas behind bars, but it sure is a lot more complicated.
In January 1993, Thomas (who is serving three life sentences for murdering his girlfriend) was assaulted by guards at the state prison in Limon. Then, after Thomas filed a formal complaint about the beating, guards planted a knife in his cell as retaliation ("Setup in the Joint?" July 28, 1993). Now incarcerated in the Territorial prison in Canon City, Thomas has continued to have run-ins with guards. While recovering from minor surgery last month, Thomas claims, he was "attacked and assaulted" by another guard, causing medical complications.
And though the officer reportedly has defended his actions by saying he was "just playing," Thomas has filed an intent to sue the Department of Corrections (DOC) and is asking for at least $20,000 in damages.
Thomas's conflicts with Colorado correctional officers began almost as soon as he got to prison. Prison authorities admit that he isn't particularly well thought of there, as much for his uncooperative attitude as for the heinous nature of his crime--on February 25, 1992, Thomas stalked his former girlfriend, chased her down in his car and shot her three times just as she reached the steps of the Fort Collins Police Department.
Thomas was quickly convicted and was living in the prison in Limon when, on January 28, 1993, tensions reached a fever pitch; three guards were stabbed while trying to break up a fight among the inmates (Thomas wasn't involved). The facility was then placed on lockdown--meaning inmates' movements were severely restricted--while the prison was searched for weapons.
The following day, as prisoners were being escorted to their cells, two guards assaulted Thomas, reportedly for refusing to obey an order. Thomas, who suffered bruises on his back, hips and legs, later identified his attackers as Lieutenant Kenneth Coblentz and Marshall Blasingame. Both guards were suspended for eight days following the incident.
On July 9, more than five months after the assault, guards were conducting a shakedown of prisoners' cells when guard Michael Ferris discovered a homemade knife in Thomas's quarters. Thomas was immediately taken to an isolation cell.
Thomas, however, avoided more serious discipline--and another criminal charge--when an informant told authorities that a guard might have planted the knife. An investigation was launched, and Ferris, Coblentz and guard Kevin Casper were suspended soon afterward. Ferris was never charged in the case, but prosecutors accused Casper and Coblentz of multiple felonies.
In January this year, Coblentz pleaded guilty to introducing contraband (the knife) into the facility. He was sentenced to six years' probation and ninety days in jail. In addition, he must pay more than $7,000 in fines and court costs and perform 100 hours of community service. Casper pleaded guilty to first-degree official misconduct, a misdemeanor, in May and was sentenced to two years' probation and sixty days in jail.
After the knife incident, Thomas filed suit in federal court against the DOC. The suit was subsequently dismissed, but, Thomas claims, he was "moved to the facility of my choice as part of those negotiations." (DOC officials say they refused Thomas's initial request--to be sent to a minimum-security prison--but that they later agreed on the medium-security Territorial.)
On July 13, Thomas underwent surgery to remove a growth from his back. He was stitched up, and a drain was placed in the surgical site to aid healing. While standing in the lunch line at the chow hall a week later, Thomas contends in his intent to sue, "I was slugged with the clenched fist of a correctional officer on the surgical site area.
"I was taken to medical," he writes, "and I had swelling and bruising near the surgical site which is consistent with blunt trauma."
Thomas says that the officer, whom he identifies as Sergeant Donald Flynt, confessed, "but tried to downplay his actions" by claiming that he was "just playing" and didn't realize Thomas had recently undergone surgery.
The only one who's been punished since then, Thomas says, is him. He claims to have been fired from his prison job, says his cell has been targeted for shakedowns, and adds that he has been warned by prison authorities to keep his mouth shut. By contrast, complains Thomas, Flynt has received thirty days off with pay while the investigation continues. "The upper staff here feel that this kind of behavior is rewardable, I guess," Thomas says.
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Officials and investigators with the Department of Corrections are keeping mum on most aspects of the case because, they say, the investigation is still pending--and because Thomas has served them with notice of his intent to sue.
DOC spokeswoman Liz McDonough acknowledges, however, that at least some of Thomas's story is true. "The officer did say, `Yeah, it happened,'" says McDonough. "It's my understanding that it was a horseplay type of thing and that the officer had no intent to do anything. We teach our officers that they shouldn't engage in horseplay with inmates, precisely because this is the kind of thing that happens if you do."
As for the rest of Thomas's story, McDonough remains skeptical. Thomas, she says, didn't complain about the alleged assault "until a half hour after" the incident. He was taken to the clinic only as a precaution, she says, and the damage to his back--if any--doesn't appear to have slowed him down.
"He has been seen lifting weights," says McDonough. "I think it's been blown out of proportion.