Fight Club

William Vance Turner told them he didn't do it. They didn't believe him, of course. Three years ago, anything a prisoner had to say about what was going on inside the special housing unit (SHU) of the federal penitentiary at Florence would have been dismissed by authorities as pretty damned unbelievable.

On August 8, 1996, Turner, a 45-year-old convicted robber, had an altercation with four corrections officers in his cell at the high-security pen, part of the four-prison federal complex in Fremont County. The guards reported that Turner had stabbed two of them with a sharpened toothbrush and had to be physically restrained. The officers' wounds were then photographed and treated, while a bruised and bloodied Turner was charged with assault and moved to a small holding cell.

Over the next four days, Turner, stripped to his boxers and shackled hand and foot, was visited frequently by medical staff, who were required to check on his condition and document his treatment with a video camera. Unable to shower or even defecate without assistance, Turner pleaded to be taken to an infirmary so that his aching ribs could be taped and X-rayed. He whimpered that he was innocent. And he said he was afraid that the officers who'd beaten and kicked him would be calling on him again soon.

"They're going to jump on me and kill me," he said. "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."

"So you're saying these officers stabbed themselves?" asked one skeptical staffer.

On the grainy videotape taken of the discussion, Turner seems to be on the verge of telling the employee that that was exactly what happened. But then he slowly shakes his head. "I don't want to get myself in no kind of trouble," he replies, his voice shaking. "I don't want to go against those officers no more."

Truth is a scarce commodity in the bowels of a penitentiary, but subsequent events have made Turner's improbable story seem increasingly, chillingly plausible. Last year, criminal charges against Turner for the stabbings, which could have added another ten years to his sentence, were abruptly dropped. Six months ago, one of the guards involved in the incident pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate the rights of prisoners, a conspiracy that involved singling out "problem" inmates for brutal attacks and fabricating evidence -- including self-inflicted injuries -- to make it appear that the guards were acting in self-defense. And last month, Turner filed suit against thirteen current and former employees of USP Florence, seeking damages for malicious prosecution as well as for the beating he suffered.

The dramatic turnabout in Turner's case is the result of a two-year investigation by the U.S. Justice Department into criminal misconduct at the Florence prison. The probe focuses on a group of a dozen guards known as the Cowboys, a rogue element that allegedly dispensed its own brand of justice for more than eighteen months -- and threatened any inmates or fellow officers who dared to complain about it.

How many inmates were attacked by the Cowboys or how many staffers were aware of the group's activities is unknown. Both Mark Blumberg, the Washington, D.C.-based prosecutor for the Justice Department's civil-rights division who is heading the effort, and a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Denver declined to comment on details of the ongoing investigation. But court records and inmate accounts provide glimpses of a prison operation in which men already in handcuffs were beaten regularly and the beatings just as regularly covered up.

The key witness in the government's case is David Armstrong, a former lieutenant at the Florence prison and admitted member of the Cowboys. Armstrong was transferred from the prison a few months after the Turner fracas and was subsequently questioned about possible misconduct while employed at another U.S. Bureau of Prisons facility. Last July he entered into a plea agreement in Denver's federal court, acknowledging that he and other Cowboys engaged in "retaliatory beatings against disruptive or 'problem' inmates...[and] routinely joked, bragged and related tales of their abuse of inmates to each other."

Armstrong, who faces up to ten years in prison but is cooperating with investigators, no longer lives in Colorado. His attorney, Robert Berger, declined to comment on the case. But in his plea agreement, Armstrong states that the Cowboys were a secret wrecking squad formed early in 1995 out of staff frustration with perceived lenient treatment of SHU inmates who assaulted guards. The group's solution was to intimidate, harass and physically punish the "problem" inmates by punching and kicking them in the body and head -- and then file false reports that made the inmates appear to be the aggressors.

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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

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