A Real Ball-Buster

In the state Department of Corrections' Alternative Program, also known as "boot camp" and modeled on military-style training, guards may apply specific tactics to persuade newly arrived prisoners to follow orders. One approved method is called "chesting." The corrections officer, keeping his hands down by his sides, bumps his chest into an inmate's back to herd him in a particular direction. (Female guards are permitted to use their shoulders and backs so as not to injure their breasts.)

Robert Ellsworth, a sergeant at Colorado's Buena Vista Correctional Facility Boot Camp, is credited with inventing a new technique. A colleague who saw him perform the maneuver later described it: "Ellsworth turned around so his back was to an inmate's back and leaned against the inmate. He then crouched lower and [reaching through both sets of legs] grabbed the inmate in the crotch area and squeezed."

"Watch this," Ellsworth was heard to say. "It will get them going."
On a spring evening in 1996, while herding a new boot camp inmate named Jason Quick onto a bus, Ellsworth apparently squeezed too hard. Quick, who had arrived in the program following a series of traffic infractions, complained. Prisoners, of course, gripe about their treatment in prison all the time. But medical tests conducted five months later revealed that Quick would soon have even more reason to do so: He was sterile.

What really happened that day three years ago is still up in the air, legally. Ellsworth was eventually fired from his job for abusing his position of power. He appealed that decision and lost; however, he has since asked that his sacking be reviewed at a still higher level.

Ellsworth was also prosecuted by the Chaffee County District Attorney for sexual assault, among other charges. Two years ago he agreed to plead no contest to a lesser charge--a deal he subsequently reneged on. After a series of appeals, the case made its way to the Colorado Supreme Court, where it has languished for the past year.

In July 1997, a civil lawsuit was added to the growing mound of paperwork. It charges that the Department of Corrections knew about Ellsworth's behavior but didn't stop him, and thus is to blame for Quick's injuries. It also alleges that Ellsworth caused Quick to become sterile and asks for damages. That suit, too, is pending, in Chaffee County District Court.

The ball-buster incident even reached the attention of then-governor Roy Romer, who ordered former DOC director Ari Zavaras to investigate what really happened between Quick and Ellsworth. "The Governor takes your situation very seriously," one of Romer's legal advisers promised Quick in a personal letter.

No one is arguing that Quick--who fathered three children before the incident--didn't make his own bed in getting to prison. A series of driving offenses got him into trouble; missed court dates and unapproved disappearances from halfway houses compounded it. "There's no doubt he screwed up," says his Greeley civil attorney, David Morgan.

Thanks to such blunders, by early 1996 Quick had graduated from the county lockup to the state Department of Corrections. On May 1, 1996, he arrived at the Buena Vista Alternative Program, a rehabilitation system designed with prisoners like Jason Quick in mind.

Intended to relieve prison overcrowding, the DOC's boot camp is aimed at pushing young, nonviolent male offenders back into society equipped with new and useful skills, such as discipline and respect for authority. It claims to instill these traits using the old-fashioned military philosophy of breaking down recruits in order to build them back up. (Corrections officers who work in the program receive special training at an Army training center in Alabama.) Prisoners who successfully complete the program can earn lighter sentences.

Inmates arrive at the camp in south central Colorado once a month, 30 to 45 at a time. The process of breaking them down begins immediately. Upon arrival at the camp, called "zero day," inmates are subjected to a series of stressful situations designed to shock them psychologically and physically. As soon as they step off the bus, for example, they are put through a rigorous program of calisthenics while guards--here called drill instructors--scream orders.

On the day Quick arrived, his group of inmates was also repeatedly directed to rapidly exit and reboard their bus, an environment that created confusion and tension. Throughout the exercise--an operation guards refer to as the "initial incident"--the instructors moved among the prisoners, yelling at them to move faster and chesting them.

On May 3, two days after "zero day," Quick reported being assaulted during the initial incident. Because of the confusion created by the guards, however, he was unable to recognize the guard who supposedly grabbed him. The only identification he was able to come up with was a voice saying, "Watch my tactics; it will get them going."

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer