Marked for Death

Jeremy Garcia was the first to see the Special Forces commandos. Well, they said they were Special Forces. But the two men didn't look like any commandos Garcia had seen before. Their heads were covered by camouflage hoods studded with pieces of red sponge. They wore thick green canvas breastplates and other protective material on their arms and legs. They carried long poles swathed in sheets and a heavy tarp made out of a mattress cover. They looked like refugees from an intergalactic roller derby.

It was half past nine on the night of October 3, 1997. Garcia, a corrections officer at the U.S. penitentiary outside of Florence, Colorado, was patrolling the recreation yard when he abruptly came across the pair, standing outside one of the housing units. They made no move to run or hide themselves in the darker recesses of the yard. It was as if they'd been waiting for him.

"We're Special Forces, here to infiltrate your institution," said one of the men. "Didn't your lieutenant notify you?"

Garcia used his radio to ask his lieutenant if the prison was expecting any visitors. But even as he made the call, the officer realized he was dealing with something much stranger than an invasion by Special Forces. These men were inmates...inmates on the yard, two and a half hours after all of the prisoners were supposed to be back in their cells...inmates wearing gear that was designed to help them blend in with the red gravel in the yard and to climb over razor wire without getting sliced to ribbons.

Other guards responded quickly to Garcia's call. The two prisoners, who turned out to be convicted bank robbers Tony Francis and Robert Haney, were stripped of their equipment and cuffed. A search of the yard turned up other tools, including more poles; a couple of homemade ladders made out of canvas belts and wooden blocks; a grappling hook created from a heavy combination lock and a toothbrush container; and a duffel bag packed with food, clothing, a compass, medical supplies and cayenne pepper -- which, prison officials surmised, was to be used to throw pursuing bloodhounds off the scent, just like in Cool Hand Luke. It appeared that Francis and Haney had been apprehended by Officer Garcia in the process of trying to bust out of the most modern, escape-proof, high-security federal pen in America.

Yet there were aspects of the caper that puzzled investigators. If the two men were breaking out, why was so much of their equipment scattered across the yard, in plain view of one or more of the seven guard towers? How did they get it all there in the first place? Why were they still in the yard almost three hours after the last count, when they could have used their ladders to reach the roof, climb over the prison wall and then tackle the perimeter fence?

Aside from the crack about Special Forces, Francis and Haney weren't talking about their bungled escape...or whatever it was. But if they weren't trying to escape, what were they doing?

Q: It's not against the law to go into protective custody, is it?

A: Yes, it is.

Q: What law?

A: The law of the jungle. The prisoner's law. -- Cross-examination of Tony Francis, USA v. Francis and Haney, April 2000

Last month, more than two years after they were charged with attempted escape, Francis and Haney finally got a chance to explain themselves in a federal courtroom in downtown Denver. They brought in a string of witnesses, many of them dangerous convicts shackled hand and foot, to tell the jury about a rumor that got out of hand; about a vicious race war that spread across the federal penitentiary system; and, finally, about an act of desperation triggered by two murders that occurred at another prison, thousands of miles away.

Tony Francis took the stand in his own defense and made the most outrageous claim of all: When Officer Garcia found him on the yard, he said, he wasn't trying to escape. He was auditioning for a cell in solitary confinement. Marked for death by a black prison gang, despised by white gang members, he figured it was the only way to save his hide.

It was a wild and convoluted tale, yet it made a crazy kind of sense. The lawyers for the accused, Assistant Federal Public Defender Janine Yunker and criminal attorney David Lane, hammered away at the essential ironies of the case. U.S. Penitentiary Florence is part of a sophisticated four-prison compound that includes the federal supermax, ADX, and as such, it is virtually impossible to escape. Even if Francis and Haney had made it through stacks of razor wire without getting shot or impaled, the numerous security devices of the larger complex would have easily defeated them. But external security doesn't translate into security for the people inside; in its short history, USP Florence has become one of the deadliest prisons in the country.

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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