Longform

Cowboy Justice

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LaVallee didn't always follow his own advice. Witnesses testified that he boasted in bars of the beatings and angrily confronted officers he didn't think were sufficiently loyal. A schoolteacher who visited his home said he told her he'd beaten an inmate so badly that day that he thought he'd killed him; the man started to convulse, but the beating continued.

These were rare glimpses, though, into a hidden world. Everyone understood that what happened in the SHU had to stay there. Cops and soldiers have similar sayings about what happens on the street or on patrol, and the Cowboys knew that ethic well; six of the seven indicted guards are ex-military. Several of them had gone through the BOP's training academy together in 1993, an initiation into the seal of silence and loyalty they would share.

They were still relatively young, inexperienced corrections officers when they arrived at USP Florence a few months later -- a new prison that was already home to more than a thousand high-security inmates, close to double the number it was designed for.


Penitentiaries such as USP Florence are the dumping ground of the federal system, reserved for the most violent, escape-prone or long-term problem prisoners. Officially, "the worst of the worst," including convicted terrorists and gang leaders, are sent to the Florence supermax, the highest-security prison in the country, across the road from the USP. But any corrections officer will tell you that the USP is a far more dangerous assignment.

In the supermax, prisoners are rarely out of their cells, and the staff-to-inmate ratio is high. At USP Florence, depending on the shift, guards are outnumbered as much as ten to one by prisoners, many of whom belong to the Aryan Brotherhood, the Mexican Mafia, the DC Blacks or one of forty other prison gangs. There were eight inmate homicides in the prison's first seven years of operation and close to one hundred inmate-on-inmate assaults in one seventeen-month period.

Prisoners who attack other prisoners or guards are removed from general population and sent to the Special Housing Unit -- along with the deranged, the gangbangers and the protective-custody cases. The SHU at the Florence pen soon became so crowded that double-bunking was the norm. Far from being a deterrent to violence, the segregation unit emerged as the most dangerous place in the prison, for inmates and guards alike.

By early 1995, the situation had reached a boiling point. An influx of hard-core gang members from other prisons had produced a rash of assaults on staff and filled up the SHU. The administration's solution to bad behavior was simple: loss of privileges, more time in the SHU. This was little comfort to the guards who worked in the SHU, dealing daily with men who cursed them, spat on them, shit-bombed them or ejaculated through their cell's food-slot door. What could be done to control hard cases and nutjobs who had so little left to lose?

According to prosecutors, it was around this time that Mike LaVallee told other officers he'd been given a "green light" by Captain Terry Hines, overlord of the SHU, to take care of business. Hines was a mentor to the young Cowboys, a veteran officer who told jaw-dropping stories about the good old days at USP Marion, the Illinois pen that had replaced Alcatraz as the toughest joint in the system until the Florence supermax opened in 1994.

One witness would later recall Hines bragging about his boys at Marion, who were sharp enough to drag inmates into an elevator, away from any cameras, in order to administer correction. "You haven't done anything until you've been suspended one time," Hines allegedly told his green troops at Florence.

Hines, who left Florence in 1996 and became an associate warden at a prison in Pennsylvania, was never charged in the investigation. He appeared at the Cowboys trial as a defense witness, sparring with prosecutors and denying the "green light" conversation or any knowledge of officer misconduct. But Armstrong claimed to have had a similar conversation with Hines about doing what had to be done.

Like a lot of officers in the SHU, Armstrong was disgusted by the administration's lack of backbone in dealing with mouthy, belligerent prisoners. In 1995 he was 29 years old, around the same age as most of the other Cowboys, and not inclined to take crap from lowlifes. He became an enthusiastic participant in more than a dozen beatings of prisoners -- too many, he told the jury, to remember them all.

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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