Longform

Cowboy Justice

Page 5 of 9

On the third day, guards put a jumbo-sized prisoner into Turner's cell. Turner, who claimed to be a protective-custody case, protested. He got the worst of the ensuing fight with his cellie, who was soon removed.

On the eighth day, Schultz stuck his arm into the food slot in Turner's cell, ostensibly to hand him a towel. Schultz cried out that Turner had grabbed him by the wrist and was stabbing his arm. Officers Armstrong, LaVallee and James Bond responded. Turner was slapped, kicked, punched, put in a chokehold and otherwise neutralized. Shackled hand and foot, he was moved to a holding cell and charged with assaulting Schultz and Armstrong.

Stabbing a corrections officer can add another ten years to an inmate's sentence. But the entire incident was a fraud, Armstrong testified. The guards had decided in advance to pay Turner a visit, with the aim of nailing him on charges that would keep him in 23-hour lockdown for years. Schultz had sharpened a toothbrush in an office, Armstrong said, stabbed himself in the arm, then sprinkled blood in Turner's cell after the beating.

Videotapes of Turner in the holding cell, taken to document his medical treatment, show a frail, whimpering wreck who can hardly stand or even defecate without assistance. He complains of severe pain in his ribs, protests his innocence, frets that the men who did this aren't finished with him.

"They're going to jump on me and kill me," he tells one skeptical staff member. "Look at me, man. I didn't stab nobody. I'll take a polygraph on it, man. I have never stabbed anybody in my entire time in this system."

Nobody pays too much attention to what inmate Turner has to say. After four days of sitting in his own excrement and receiving minimal medical attention, his moaning stops. He offers a contrite apology to a guard, clearly eager to better his situation. Here he is, facing another ten years in prison -- and calmly consenting to the frame. Like Winston Smith in 1984, who appeases his keepers by acknowledging that two plus two equals five, he seems willing to confess to anything.

"I guess I blew up at Schultz," he mutters. "It was my fault. If you could relay that to the captain... Also, I've got two lawsuits. Tell him that I'm willing to tear them up. I don't even want to deal with that shit."

Turner learned his lesson well. What was real was not his aching ribs, but what the guards said was real. Nobody would ever believe anything different, especially if it came from the likes of William Turner.

So it came to pass: What started in the SHU stayed in the SHU.


Except it didn't.

One of the more troubling questions to emerge from the Cowboys trial is how an alleged conspiracy of such magnitude, involving more than a dozen officers and spanning two and a half years, could go undetected for so long. So many crimes, so many constitutional violations committed by federal employees inside a high-security federal institution -- wasn't anybody paying any attention?

Prosecutors say the isolated nature of the SHU helped to conceal what was going on. Captain Hines had a great deal of control over which officers were assigned to the SHU, and those officers controlled access to the unit. The inmates were locked away from the world, their injuries dutifully explained away in memos and minimized by medical staff who were willing to cover for the officers. "The SHU was the perfect place to beat inmates," Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Mydans said.

Nonsense, responded defense lawyers, who pointed out that there was an endless parade of people through the SHU: wardens, associate wardens, captains and lieutenants, food-service personnel, physicians' assistants. At the end of his closing argument, Tom Hammond, LaVallee's attorney, thumped the lectern repeatedly, ridiculing the notion that other staff could be kept waiting, "knocking at the door" of the SHU until the Cowboys were through beating someone. It was absurd to believe that so many beatings could occur and nobody outside the unit would know, he argued.

Yet there is reason to believe that many people outside the SHU did know about the beatings. They just didn't do anything about it. They didn't take the information seriously, they didn't care, or they were scared.

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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