The Cowboy Way
Standing at a makeshift podium in a field outside the Florence federal prison complex, Jim Davis gestured angrily at the stark walls encased in razor wire. Dozens of listeners sat on hay bales, many of them broad-shouldered men clutching signs calling for "Fair and Equal Treatment" and wearing T-shirts that read "I Walked the Line."
"That's a war zone," Davis said. "When you go in there, you don't know if you're going to come out."
"Damn right!" came a cry from the audience.
Davis, the national secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Government Employees -- the largest federal employees' union, which counts thousands of corrections officers among its 600,000 members -- pressed on. "For the Department of Justice to turn its back on you is wrong," he said. "I want to see these folks come down here and do what you do." The crowd applauded furiously. Along the highway that snaked past the front entrance of the complex, other picketers waved signs -- "Stop Vacating Post," "Abandoned Government Employees," "Doesn't Offer Justice" -- at passing motorists, most of whom honked their approval.
Last month's protest was an unusually public display of staff unrest within the four-prison Florence complex, home to some of the most violent inmates in the entire federal prison system. It was a chance for corrections officers to air their disputes with the Bureau of Prisons and the Department of Justice over understaffing and the failure, in some cases, to provide legal representation to guards in civil suits filed by inmates. It was also an opportunity to vent to the media regarding the hazards of what one speaker called "the most dangerous job in law enforcement."
Union officials noted that, nationwide, corrections officers endure 20,000 assaults per year at the hands of inmates, and they run the risk of being on the receiving end of hurled feces, urine and other bodily fluids (while being denied any information about which inmates carry deadly viruses such as AIDS or hepatitis).
But much of the outrage at the October 18 rally was directed at an entirely different threat -- a three-year DOJ investigation into allegations that a group of guards known as the Cowboys had systematically beaten and abused prisoners at USP Florence, the high-security penitentiary at the complex ("Fight Club," December 16, 1999). Three former officers have pleaded guilty to lesser charges in exchange for agreeing to testify against their co-workers; two weeks after the picket, a federal grand jury in Denver charged seven more guards with violating inmates' civil rights. Several of those indicted still work at the complex and attended the rally; they have since been suspended pending the outcome of their cases.
The indictment describes attacks on nearly two dozen inmates over a two-year period. While handcuffed, prisoners were allegedly slammed headfirst into the ground or walls, kneed in the back and kidneys and kicked in the ribs or testicles. Guards are also accused of mixing feces and urine in prisoners' food, throwing flaming paper into a cell as a pretext for spraying prisoners with a fire extinguisher and fabricating evidence, including self-inflicted injuries, to make it appear that they were acting in self-defense. According to the testimony of David Armstrong, a guard who has pleaded guilty, the Cowboys also threatened other officers in order to obtain their silence, suggesting that the group would fail to back up any snitch in a crisis; their motto was supposedly "Lie 'til you die."
However, several of the indicted officers have denied any wrongdoing, and their cause has been embraced by the union leadership. "We don't run vigilante groups," AFGE regional officer Larry Raney told the protesters last month. "If we were doing that, we could not function in this facility. I guarantee you some inmates would retaliate."
The union local has opened a legal defense fund for the officers, and it's soliciting contributions on its Web site, claiming that the accused face financial ruin even if they're acquitted. (The starting pay for a federal prison guard is around $25,000 a year.) Local president Steve Browning says he has received no complaints about the chapter's efforts from his members -- quite the opposite, in fact. "The local took a vote to fully support these people," he says. "They've been denied due process."
Contributions to the defense fund have been trickling in from other AFGE locals across the country. People who have posted to the local's Web site have railed against the "Dept. of Just-Ass," saying the charges are overblown, or worse, a conspiracy to intimidate the union. Some contend that the guilty pleas obtained so far were coerced. "The ruthless, thug-loving Civil Rights Division is AGAIN after fine officers!" declared one anonymous scribe. "The officers are wrongfully accused of violating the civil rights of drug pushers, rapists, murderers, gangbangers, bank robbers, cartel hit men and baby killers!"
"I stand behind my brothers 100 percent!" wrote a union official from Pennsylvania. "The rest of you need to get a set of NUTS and show your support of these brave men!"
Three of the accused officers, Brent Gall, Mike LaVallee and Rod Schultz, have posted their own proclamations of innocence. "We will prevail!" Schultz vowed. "No deals, just victory!" None of the three could be reached for comment.
For many union stalwarts, the fact that only line officers have been charged in the case confirms their long-held belief that Bureau of Prisons administrators protect their own while leaving the troops to fend for themselves. Attorneys for the inmates have suggested that the Cowboys couldn't have operated so long without some degree of official sanction, but no prison officials are named in the indictment -- despite the claim that LaVallee allegedly boasted to other officers that he had a "green light" from an unnamed supervisor to "take care of business."
According to Armstrong's testimony, the beatings began in response to staff frustration over the administration's perceived lenient treatment of "problem" prisoners who were known to be disruptive or to assault guards. Most of the incidents occurred in the penitentiary's overcrowded special housing unit, or SHU, which houses disciplinary cases and gang leaders, as well as inmates seeking protective custody.
Prisoners claim that officially condoned brutality in the SHU has been even more widespread than the indictments would suggest. One civil lawsuit, which has been moving slowly toward trial for the past four years, concerns the case of Scott Rollins, a convicted bank robber who was assaulted in the SHU in 1996. Rollins claims that he was deliberately placed in a cell with a known enemy, over his protests, then nearly killed by the other inmate. None of the officers named in Rollins's suit were part of the so-called Cowboys, and prison officials have denied any misconduct in the incident.
"There seem to be some disturbing incidents of inmate-on-inmate violence in that unit," says Rollins attorney Thomas Birge.
That's an understatement. There have been three murders in the SHU during the past four years, including the horrific disembowelment last year of a bank robber named Joey Estrella ("Marked for Death," May 25). According to staff sources, the officers who arrived to videotape the bloody crime scene found Estrella's two cellmates displaying his entrails to other prisoners; one held up the victim's mutilated liver and asked the officers if they were hungry.
No charges have been filed yet in Estrella's murder, but the exceptionally gruesome nature of his death remains a grim reminder of how cheap life can be in a place like the SHU, and how the penitentiary environment can brutalize inmates and officers alike. Union officials say that they want the public to know what their members are up against -- outmanned, underpaid and often unarmed -- and withhold judgment on the indicted officers until all the facts are known.
"The public doesn't want to know that there are 35 new federal prisons coming on line in the next few years," says AFGE national officer Gerry Swanke. "They don't want to know that federal employees are being bombarded by HIV-infected feces. When something bad happens, our people are the ones with the squeegees who have to go in there and clean up the mess."
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.