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.

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.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast