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Cowboys and Prisoners

Trumpeted as the pinnacle of high-tech prison architecture when it opened in 1993, the Federal Correctional Complex in Florence, Colorado, contains two lower security facilities, one maximum security prison, and, since 1994, the Clockwork Orange inspired U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum. The steel and concrete citadels are rimmed by verdant hills covered in dense grass. Hedgehogs and other creatures come and go undisturbed. But, inside the modern maximum security prison, an old-fashioned rodeo of brutality pitted guards (who called themselves "The Cowboys") against prisoners bridled by chains.

According to an indictment filed November 2, 2000, in the U.S. District Court of Colorado, on August 8, 1996, four guards punched, kicked, and body slammed prisoner William Turner. The guards contended Turner, a slightly built 45 year-old robber, stabbed two of them with a sharpened toothbrush. Turner was charged with assault and thrown, still wearing restraints, into a small holding cell. Unable to wash and covered in his own excrement due to injuries suffered in the beating, he pleaded unsuccessfully with medical staff over the next four days to be taken to the infirmary for X-rays and treatment. Turner also told anyone within earshot he didn't stab the guards, but was fearful they would be back to finish him off.

"They're going to jump on me and kill me," he declared in one videotaped exchange with a medical technical assistant. "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." Turner's vivid description of the attack formed the foundation of the government's case. Falsely accusing Florence prisoners of assault, beating them when helpless, and fabricating incident reports to cover up the brutality didn't begin or end with Turner, however.

In a series of hard-hitting articles spanning several years, Westword writer Alan Prendergast revealed a pattern of misconduct, violence, and official acquiescence at Florence. Prendergast provided background materials for this article. And, as a result of such media exposure, lawsuits filed by prisoners, and complaints by other prison staff, the U.S. Department of Justice conducted a two-and-a-half year criminal investigation. That probe quickly zeroed in on a group of guards called "The Cowboys".

The star witness for the Justice Department was David Armstrong, a former Florence lieutenant and confessed member of The Cowboys. Armstrong pled guilty in July of 1999, in Denver's federal court, admitting he and other Cowboys participated in "retaliatory beatings against disruptive or `problem' [prisoners and] routinely joked, bragged and related tales of their abuse of inmates to each other." Armstrong also recounted how David Pruyne, 36, came up with the group's nickname during a confrontation with a prisoner who belonged to the Crips. "We have a new gang here," whispered Pruyne. "It's called The Cowboys."

Armstrong, who faced ten years in prison and a $250,000 fine, revealed in his plea agreement that The Cowboys, a secret gang of dissatisfied guards, formed in 1995. The Cowboys were angry because they felt the prisoners assigned to the Special Housing Unit (SHU) for assaulting staff were getting off too lightly. Their solution? Punch, kick, and torture the chained and cuffed prisoners, then file false reports claiming the victims provoked the violence. Other staff were warned to keep quiet about the abuse. "Officers who expressed disapproval of The Cowboys' actions ... were often threatened with physical harm," Armstrong recounted in the agreement. "Officers who did not support them could be at risk of harm from an attack by an inmate because Cowboys would delay or avoid providing help."

By the time The Cowboys attacked Turner in 1996, the scope of their plan had broadened. Turner was a jailhouse lawyer (someone who prepares and files lawsuits and legal briefs for himself and other prisoners). Jailhouse lawyers are customarily targeted by guards for retaliation in jails and prisons across the country.

Seven Florence guards, members of The Cowboys, were indicted by a federal grand jury November 2, 2000. The guards were charged with 52 specific acts of misconduct committed between 1995 and 1997 against some 20 named prisoners. It is unlikely that the identity of all The Cowboys, or a full accounting of the casualties in their war against prisoners, will ever be known. However, the indictment provides a rare glimpse at how guards abused prisoners by kicking them, smashing their heads into floors and walls, and mixing feces and urine in their food. Mike Lavallee, 33, and Rod Schultz, 36, contaminated food served to prisoners with human waste several times. Lavallee and Pruyne tossed burning paper into a locked cell to justify spraying two prisoners with fire retardant. The rogue guards were also charged with kicking prisoners in their backs and stomping their testicles.

According to federal prosecutors, Lavallee told Armstrong and other conspirators they had the "green light" from prison authorities to "take care of business." Lavallee and Schultz advised The Cowboys to "lie until you die" if questioned about their actions, and threatened payback for guards who didn't back them up.

A news release from the U.S. Department of Justice explained the "object of the conspiracy was to unjustifiably injure and physically punish restrained or compliant [prisoners] at the prison." In furtherance of that conspiracy, the charges revealed how guards "falsified incident reports, and fabricated injuries and allegations of prisoner misconduct in order to falsely justify the use of force." The criminal indictment was hailed by officials as a positive step toward ending abuse of prisoners by guards.

"Today's indictment demonstrates that no one is above the law," United States Attorney Thomas Strickland stated in the press release. "Those who deprive others of their constitutional rights while acting under color of law will be held accountable." Bill Lee, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, added that the federal investigation and indictment proved the resolve of the Justice Department to insure that prisoners aren't mistreated while in custody. "This is the biggest indictment of Bureau of Prisons employees in recent history, if not ever," said Jess Dorschner, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Denver.

The charges, however, came as no surprise to the guards' union. In April of 1996, Dale Lewsader, then president of the American Federation of Government Employees local union, wrote to prison officials, "We have employees that are engaged in acts of physical abuse against [prisoners]. Management knows this is happening and is condoning these actions. We understand that in some cases, supervisors are ordering the assaults."

Chris Kester, a former Florence guard who worked at the prison from 1993 to 1997, said he and others tried to end the abuse. "We brought this [abuse] up to management more times than I can count," Kester explained in a telephone interview with The Gazette , April 29, 2001. "The rumors were everywhere. These [Cowboys] could not have done what is alleged without someone higher-up protecting them." So far, no charges have been filed against prison administrators or Bureau officials.

Turner eventually received a $17,000 settlement in one of his civil rights suits against the federal government for the abuse he endured at Florence. That award, while not large by comparison to civil judgments generally, is significant because federal judges often dismiss claims of misconduct brought by people in prison.

Ronnie Beverly, another former Florence prisoner, was repeatedly beaten by Lavallee, Schultz, and other Cowboys while in the SHU in 1996. Beverly said brutality at the hands of guards was common in Florence. "It was a situation where your human rights were being violated and it was covered up from the top to the bottom," he told The Gazette . "It was like being an American in a Soviet prison camp. You know your rights would be violated at any time and if you complained, it would all be covered up."

Not everyone believes these eyewitness accounts. "These people are in prison because they are cheats and liars," Robert Liechty, an attorney representing guards named in one of Turner's lawsuits, said. "I think these charges are trumped up," he claimed. Liechty said prisoners frequently falsely accuse guards of abuse. And, it seems the indicted guards have other supporters.

"These are good officers," said Steve Browning, current president of the AFGE local union at Florence and an employee at the prison since 1995. He believes the guards have been falsely accused. "They are treated as if they are guilty," Browning lamented. "The prosecutors claim there is a big conspiracy, but I don't think these things happened that way."

The former union leaders who complained to the Bureau of Prisons about The Cowboys were tossed out in an election dominated by candidates who denied anything wrong happened. Under Browning's leadership, the union was turned into a support group for the indicted guards. They set up a legal defense fund and a separate account to provide assistance to the families of those charged while the case was pending. At Christmas, the wives of union officials dropped off gaily decorated gift baskets and succulent holiday dinners at the homes of the accused Cowboys. Despite this support, evidence of their guilt was clear.

In addition to Armstrong, two other guards offered to cooperate with federal prosecutors in exchange for leniency in their own pending cases. Jake Geiger and Charlotte Gutierrez are expected to be sentenced after the criminal trial of the other seven Cowboys concludes. Armstrong, who now lives in New Jersey, was first to break the code of silence, and is currently awaiting sentencing for his part in the conspiracy. In 1998, Steve Mills, another former Florence guard, was sentenced to 33 months in prison for beating a prisoner.

Gutierrez, the only woman involved in the conspiracy, pled guilty to kicking Harold Lane in the ribs. Lane, handcuffed and wearing leg irons, was picked up by another guard and thrown to the tile floor face first. After Gutierrez kicked the helpless Lane, a lieutenant told her to "fix this," according to statements made in the plea agreement. She cleaned blood from the floor and walls, then hit her shins several times to make them look red and swollen. Her report claimed Lane provoked the violence by kicking her in the legs.

Was the indictment and public exposure the last round-up for The Cowboys? Probably not. Unlike the romanticized version of the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral, where the Earps and Doc Holiday reputedly killed or disabled the leaders of a group of Tombstone toughs who called themselves The Cowboys, the story of guards brutalizing prisoners won't be made into a feature film starring the latest crop of dewy-eyed actors. Neither the public nor law enforcement cares much about the safety or civil rights of people in prison. If not for the self-serving "cooperation" of former guards who participated in the beatings and cover-ups, and the relentless reporting of a local writer, The Cowboys might still be riding `em hard and putting `em away wet at Florence, the rodeo in the Rockies.

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