In the Florence pen, it's risky not to join the riot

The dysfunctional high-security federal penitentiary in Florence has been the scene of all sorts of gang-related mayhem, from the grisly 1999 disembowelment of inmate Joey Estrella to the 2008 racial uprising in the yard, in which guards fired on brawling prisoners and killed two (as reported in "Life in the Florence Prison: It's a Riot"). But recently filed court documents dealing with last year's riot suggest it can be just as dangerous to be a noncombatant at USP Florence when all hell breaks loose.

The documents provide a glimpse of how staff responded on April 20, 2008 -- Hitler's birthday -- after white supremacist gang members started attacking black inmates in the recreation yard. And that glimpse is far from reassuring. According to a lawsuit filed by inmates Richard Steele and Edward Eviey, many of the combatants were drunk and ignored orders to stop fighting. Officers in the guard towers then fired an estimated 400-500 rounds of either rubber bullets or live ammo. Steele and Eviey, who claim to have been on the opposite side of the yard from where the disturbance erupted, were injured by the hail of gunfire -- Steele struck in the foot, Eviey in the face.

According to documents filed in another case, in which prosecutors have put forward charges against five inmates for crimes ranging from assault to "willfully injuring" a metal detector, the fighting started at 12:28 pm. It took the staff nearly half an hour to organize a response team that separated the two groups in the yard, herding the whites into the gym. Since the group in the gym "continued to be disruptive and antagonistic toward staff," the officers locked them in there without supervision -- for the next four hours.

During that time a group of four inmates confronted a fifth, one Dirk Horne, apparently about his reluctance to participate in the melee. A surveillance tape of the gym shows one inmate punching Horne in the face while another grabs him in a choke hold and takes him down. This was followed by various punches and kicks. How long the beating continued isn't clear, but Horne wasn't rescued "until staff arrived in sufficient numbers to order the inmates to stop and to direct Horne to walk out of the gym to the safe area where staff members were positioned."

Horne was taken by wheelchair to the infirmary, suffering from head trauma: "Those who knew inmate Horne could not identify him subsequent to the attack based on the size of his swollen head that turned purple in color... [he] sustained the following injuries: a broken nose, a laceration to his left ear which required stitches, stitches in his lip, fractured ribs... and protracted and obvious disfigurement based on the victim's nose fracture, resulting in permanent scarring and nasal bone disfigurement."

Damned if you do, damned if you don't. In the gang-ridden Florence pen, the path of least resistance isn't always clear.

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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