Longform

Cowboy Justice

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As early as 1995, Chris Kester, a representative of the guards' union who worked in the SHU, had gone to warden Joel Knowles about the injured inmates he saw when he arrived for his shift. Knowles discounted the stories, though, and Kester's subsequent efforts to go up the ladder -- meetings with top-ranking BOP officials, calls for a congressional investigation -- led nowhere. (According to Schultz, Kester was trying to "bring down" officers who challenged his leadership.)

In fact, the most tangible result of Kester's efforts was the growing rank-and-file hostility toward union reps who failed to support their brother officers. After a shakeup in leadership of the guards' local, the union began taking a more sympathetic position concerning the Cowboys, regarding them as fall guys targeted by ambitious Department of Justice lawyers ("The Cowboy Way," November 23, 2000). The DOJ routinely defends high-ranking prison officials in prisoner lawsuits, union officials noted, while leaving lowly line officers to hire their own attorneys.

Plenty of inmates complained, too, but they fared worse than Kester. After all, inmates always complain, and nobody pays them any mind. Called to the stand to account for his findings that inmates had consistently assaulted staff in the SHU, not the other way around, a disciplinary hearing officer explained that in 12,000 hearings, he'd never taken the word of an inmate over that of a guard without persuasive supporting evidence. But the supporting evidence -- the memos, the photos of officer injuries, the medical reports -- was invariably on the guards' side.

So when the complaints did produce an investigation, either by the BOP's own snoops or by the FBI, it was a perfunctory effort that couldn't pierce the wall of paperwork the Cowboys had erected around their activities. The investigators would talk to the guards and read the documents. Then they'd dismiss what the inmates said as -- well, the kind of thing inmates say. What was real was what was on paper.

If they'd looked closely at the paperwork, they might have detected some problems. They might have noticed, for instance, that the guards seemed to have collaborated on their reports of the Turner incident, right down to the same misspellings in identical accounts of how Turner "began to viscously [sic] stab" Schultz while "fanatically" screaming.

But they had no reason to be suspicious. In a sense, they were unwitting accomplices in the conspiracy themselves, part of the same system, a system that brutalized prisoners and corrections officers alike and never attached much value to either group. All they had to go on were inmate complaints, and everybody knew that inmates were liars.

"These officers relied on the institutional presumption that no one believes an inmate," prosecutor Mydans told the jury. "[The guards] were instantly believed. And they were never challenged by a system that was supposed to investigate inmate complaints."

Eventually, though, they were challenged, as the evidence leaking out of the SHU became too formidable to ignore. In 1997, a Catholic priest went to the warden with some disturbing stories about inmates who claimed to have been abused in the SHU. There were reports of beatings, of prisoners being served food mixed with urine and feces, of deadly enemies being deliberately celled together for the sake of the sporting event that might follow. And there was a loose cannon roaming the BOP by the name of David Armstrong.

By that point, promotions and transfers out of the SHU had effectively put an end to the Cowboys as a working unit. Armstrong had made lieutenant, his salary raised to a magnificent $38,000 a year, but he couldn't shake his old ways. Assigned to a prison in Pennsylvania, he was soon demoted for rules violations, then transferred to a prison in New Jersey. A few months later, he was suspended for seven days for an altercation with an inmate in a holding cell.

He returned to work in the spring of 1998 and found an FBI agent waiting for him. The agent wanted to ask him a few questions about his dealings with inmate Overstreet at USP Florence two years earlier.

Armstrong had been questioned about the Overstreet beating before. He'd stuck by his memo, denying any misconduct. But the FBI had gone back over his statements and noticed certain discrepancies. He'd been caught in a lie, the kind of lie that could lead to a perjury charge. Over the next few months, Armstrong's story began to buckle and collapse. He admitted to beating Overstreet. Then three or four other inmates. Then a dozen more.

Around the same time, the government's case against inmate Turner for stabbing Schultz was unraveling faster than a pair of Wal-Mart stretch pants. Turner had been fortunate enough to land a court-appointed attorney, Scott Baroway, who actually looked into his wild story about officers stabbing themselves and trying to pin it on him. Baroway sent an investigator into the prison to interview inmates. He obtained forensic reports on the toothbrush used in the stabbing and the blood spatter in the cell and discovered that the evidence didn't match up with Schultz's account of being attacked; for one thing, the blood trail looked like it had been "flicked" onto surfaces rather than dripped from a stab wound ("Fight Club," December 16, 1999).

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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