A Prison Murder on the Web?

On May 20, a federal jury decided to give Rudy Sablan a life sentence rather than the death penalty for the gruesome 1999 slaying of another inmate at the high-security penitentiary in Florence. That same day, Prison Legal News filed suit in Denver federal court, seeking the release of the videotape guards shot of Sablan and his cousin William minutes after the crime, displaying their victim's bloody entrails in their cell and taunting their captors.

PLN editor Paul Wright, a former prisoner himself, has sought to get a copy of the tape repeatedly from federal prosecutors, but each request has been rejected — despite the fact that the tape was aired in open court in the trials of each of the Sablan cousins. "Once more the federal government seeks to conceal from public oversight the manner in which it manages its prisons," Wright says.

As noted here, the tape is a hot potato for the Bureau of Prisons. On one hand, it leaves no doubt about the Sablans' guilt as they pace their small cage, bloody and intoxicated, and show off their slaughter of their cellie, Joey Estrella, whose body was mutilated and disemboweled with a razor after he was strangled with a headphone cord. But the graphic footage raises uncomfortable questions about the way the Florence pen was being run, too: What are three prisoners doing in a cell designed for one? Where did they get the booze and the razor? Where were the guards while Estrella was screaming for help?

These questions evidently weighed hard on the jurors, who spared both Sablans execution, reportedly out of some concern about the government's culpability in the manner. And holding the government accountable for what happens behind bars is a large part of the mission of PLN, a publication written largely by and for prisoners.

Wright has posted other controversial prison video on his website, and it will be interesting to see if the Florence tape winds up there. If you really want a good look at the guts of the prison system, it's one place to start. –- Alan Prendergast