Court records and testimony prompted by a wave of inmate homicides at the Sterling Correctional Facility claim that SCF officers have repeatedly placed at-risk prisoners, particularly sex offenders, in life-threatening situations -- and that some staff have even celled deadly enemies together to "teach a lesson," fully expecting one inmate to attack another.
The result has been mayhem on a grand scale: Five inmate murders at Sterling in a two- year period that ended in 2012. An internal investigation, with findings never made public, was ordered by prison chief Tom Clements before his own murder last year. A lawsuit was recently filed by one victim's family, with possibly more to come.
With close to 2,500 inmates, Sterling is the largest prison in the state system, housing everything from short-term, minimum-security offenders to high-security prisoners serving long sentences. Prison officials say they have a proven system for separating inmates who may fight each other and have suggested -- most recently in this peculiar article in the Denver Post -- that a new law allowing for civil detention of the most predatory inmates beyond their sentence would help stem the violence.
The Sterling Correctional Facility, home to 2,481 inmates.
But other observers say the rash of killings at Sterling has a great deal to do with staff attitudes and even possible misconduct by guards. "I refuse to believe that this many deaths in a two-year period in the same prison is a statistical anomaly," says Tom Ward, a public defender whose office has represented several of the defendants in the fatal attacks. "If you look deeper into this, the evidence is clearly that it isn't."
Inmates who fear assaults by gangs or a mentally unstable roommate are routinely told that the Colorado Department of Corrections doesn't make "convenience moves" and that they are just supposed to "deal with it." At one hearing last fall, inmate Virgil Rice testified that a Sterling major told him that sex offenders weren't entitled to the same protection as other inmates. "She openly said, 'I don't care what happens to you. I believe all of you should be assaulted,'" Rice said. "She, herself, claimed to have been assaulted by her father. So it was her attitude that she needed to, you know, to prosecute her own agenda on the backs of prisoners."
Three of the five killed were serving time for crimes against children. David Guerrero-Estrada, beaten to death in his cell in early 2010, was sentenced to three years for attempted sexual assault of a child. Mark Hanson, also beaten to death, received two years for failing to register as a sex offender. Lyle White, killed six days after Hanson, had murdered an eleven-year-old boy.
In defending White's killer, James Bergman, at a special evidentiary hearing last fall, Ward called several inmate witnesses in support of Bergman's claim that he'd been forced to share a cell with White over his protests. The move was described as a form of punishment for Bergman orchestrated by one correctional officer, who told him, "You're moving in with a chomo [prison slang for child molester] and you're going to deal with it."
Bergman dealt with it in accordance with the convict code. He beat White to death the first day they were alone in a cell together.
One witness testified that the same officer, Thomas Boyer, had been involved in another incident, locking the inmate's roommate into a cell with someone who wanted to fight him: "He said, 'Well they want to fight, we're going to let them fight.' So Boyer had intentionally locked these two combatants in my cell for the purpose of provoking a fight or enabling a fight. And he was laughing about it. This was common practice."
Other witnesses said prisoners had to accept "punitive" cell moves or go into solitary confinement; that guards ignored inmates who reported being threatened and would sometimes tear cells apart in shakedowns to create more friction between cellmates; and that gang members, including members of the 211 Crew white supremacist gang, seemed to receive preferential treatment in cell assignments.
White's father says his son was assaulted before at Sterling, adding that his requests to be single-celled were ignored. "He got beat up pretty badly," the elder White says. "They can put whatever new regulations they want in place. As far as I'm concerned, this was misconduct by some particular guards."
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Another homicide occurred when James Roemer, a family man serving a two-year stretch for trespassing, was put in the same cell with Paul Farley, an inmate with a long history of assaulting his cellies. In between long stretches in solitary, Farley had raped one roommate, attacked another with a razor blade, and provided a suicidal neighbor with a homemade noose. Although Roemer was just weeks from parole, he was assigned to bunk with Farley and told to just "deal with it." Farley soon beat and strangled him in their cell.
A lawsuit filed by Roemer's mother claims prison officials had "no coherent classification method" for Roemer's unit and argues that a newly implemented "controlled movement schedule" had left inmates locked in their cells together for longer periods, increasing tensions: "In essence, Unit 2 prisoners spent eighteen hours per day locked in a [cell the size of a] bathroom with another person who may or may not have been mentally ill, violent, a gang member, a serial killer, severely damaged by years of solitary confinement, sociopathic, etc."
Bergman eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter in White's death and received a fifteen-year sentence. Farley, too, got another fifteen years. In two of the other three homicides, prosecution has been stalled by a finding that the defendant is too mentally ill or incompetent to proceed.