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Murder, Mayhem, Corruption and Snitches: BOP Florence Exposed

Located in the gently rolling hills of Southern Colorado, dotted with juniper, poplar and cedar trees, Florence is a quiet, small town that was once a prison town without a prison. At just over 5,000 town residents, Florence shares its view of the Sangre de Christo mountain range with its thrice larger sister city four miles west, Canon City, home to a sprawling collection of eight state prisons ranging from minimum security to the state supermax, CSP. With no prisons of its own, Florence residents who worked in the prison system had to work in the Canon City complex where the prisons date to 1871-the Colorado Territorial days.

Towering 800 feet above Canon City is the famous Skyline Drive, built on the backs of convict chain gangs in 1903. Yet Florence remained without distinction. The world's highest suspension bridge (1,053 feet), built in 1929, crosses the Royal George just outside Canon City, yet Florence, within sight of Canon City, remained unnoticed; unnoticed that is until 1993 when the United States Department of Justice, Bureau of Prisons (BOP) put Florence on the map by opening the Florence federal correctional complex on a 600-acre site donated by the city. The complex contained the maximum security USP (United States Penitentiary) Florence, and two lesser security facilities. This was followed by the USP Administrative Maximum (ADX) in 1994.

At a capacity of 484, ADX is the BOP's flagship supermax facility and is touted by the mainstream media as "the prototype for the nation's super-maximum-security prisons." But it is better known as the "Alcatraz of the Rockies," the successor to the USP Marion hell-hole (which had replaced Alcatraz in 1963), "the deepest, most heavily guarded, most closely watched hole in the [BOP] system," and "home office" of the Aryan Brotherhood (AB). Meanwhile, of the ten BOP maximum security facilities, USP Florence is unsurpassed in its violence and corruption. As assistant U.S. attorney Gregory Goldberg succinctly stated last December, USP Florence is the "bloodiest" prison in America. Together, their violence and corruption run deep, deep in to the prisoner ranks, the guards, and the administration. The picturesque surroundings of Florence belie the evil, dark, dank, dreary, dungeons of despair that are USP Florence, its Special Housing Unit (SHU), and ADX.

Time To Go

So violent is USP Florence that in 2000 a jury acquitted two maximum security prisoners of attempted escape based on their fear of violence at USP Florence. Tony Francis was specifically found not guilty by reason of duress. Francis' duress stemmed from his earlier misidentification as a member of the AB, a predominately white prison gang, by the television program America's Most Wanted. This eventually lead to death threats which became all too real for Francis as racial murders swept through USP Lewisberg, his former facility, and on to his location at USP Florence. By October 1997, caught in no-man's land between racial tension and no AB backing, Francis knew it was time to go.

After a ten-day prison-wide lockdown in September of 1997, Francis was directly threatened by black prisoners who had seen America's Most Wanted and told Francis that "when the shit jumps off, you know what time it is." Two weeks later a kite reconfirmed the threat. Francis enlisted the help of his only close friend, Robert Haney, who understood the exigent nature of Francis' request. With Haney's preparatory help, the duo stowed away in the maximum security yard, complete with gear to aid their escape. Haney then convinced Francis that getting caught trying to escape would bring less additional time than actually escaping and would land the pair in SHU or ADX, not as check-ins subject to potential extreme violence, but as stand-up cons. "Auditioning for a cell in solitary confinement" was preferable to seeking assistance from guards and being labeled a snitch or facing the violence of protective custody. The move would also separate them, if only for a while, from the threats to Francis' life.

Getting caught was harder than they thought. Although it was after evening lockup, it took two hours of scattering equipment across the maximum security yard, including a homemade grappling hook and ladders, poles, and a duffle bag full of food, clothes, medical supplies, a compass, and cayenne pepper-all in plain view of up to seven guard towers. Both Francis and. Haney were convicted of possessing escape paraphernalia but not attempted escape (even though Haney was denied the duress defense jury instruction used by Francis, but as a third party). "This is a jury statement that the BOP runs a system that is incapable of mitigating the violence that exists there," says Francis' attorney David Lane. In a precedent-setting ruling, the Tenth Circuit ruled last year that a third party duress defense is allowable in this situation, finding that "logic and overwhelming legal authority conjoin in establishing that the duress defense should, indeed, extend to third parties." See: U.S. v. Haney, 287 F.3d 1266 (10th Cir. 2002).

USP Florence Murders

The violence the pair feared was very real; its roots running deep into the bowels of USP. For example, when Greg Kuban was accused of being a snitch he was stabbed, but survived. His cellie, Maynard Campbell, refused to leave the cell and was murdered for his trouble. He was stabbed 27 times. Douglas Black received seven years and Steven Riddle, who did most of the stabbing, ten years.

In an incident that became known among staff as the "Weekend at Bernie's Incident," in reference to a bad-taste movie where a corpse is dragged around as if alive, Frank Melendez was murdered by his cellmate, Mirissa Araiza-Reyes. Melendez, a California cocaine dealer, got into an argument with Araiza-Reyes, a drug smuggler with a deep hatred of informants (even compelling some cellies to sign a statement not to discuss his case) serving time for illegal reentry into the United States. Araiza-Reyes told an SHU guard "I took care of that snitch for you" when he finally revealed that his cellie was dead. But this was four days after Melendez suffered blows to the head, chest and knees and then was strangled.

SHU documents reveal that Melendez was counted numerous times, received his meals, was escorted to the showers, and even took his regular exercise time in the yard-all while laying dead in his cell. "On paper, [Melendez] was present and accounted for something like twenty times after he was dead," said Araiza-Reyes' attorney, Philip DuBois, who negotiated a deal for eight and a half years for voluntary manslaughter.

These acts of violence are just the tip of an iceberg that sinks deep into the sea of violence that is USP Florence. In a murder even more gruesome than Melendez's, bank robber Joey Estrella was strangled and disemboweled allegedly by the Sablan brothers, William and Rudy. SHU prisoner Mark Farmer testified in hearings conducted last August and October that Estrella and the Sablans were all drinking homemade "hooch," laughing and arguing. Two guards were aware of the activities with one guard checking on the three shortly before the argument began. Egged on by Rudy Sablan, William Sablan and Estrella twice came to blows with Rudy intervening both times. On round three, however, Estrella was strangled with a headphone cord and his throat cut with a plastic-encased razor. He was then eviscerated, the Sablan brothers howling, laughing, and speaking in their native language of Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands.

In a turn worthy of Hannibal Lecter, it was revealed that while Estrella's stomach was split and his intestines were hanging out, his liver and spleen had been removed (found nearby) and a piece was missing from the liver. The autopsy report not only confirms this but adds that what remained of the liver was "partially dissected" or even gnawed. When Farmer and others called out for Estrella, the Sablans "replied with obscenities" and "asked if they wanted a liver."

Located in a cell across the hall, SHU prisoner Saxon Taylor testified at the Francis/Haney trial that Estrella begged a guard to be moved to another cell shortly before the killing. The guard just laughed and said "who's winning?" Afterwards, the Sablans held up pieces of Estrella as an object lesson. While Taylor's account included factual inaccuracies such as Estrella's heart laying on the cell table, given the grotesque nature of the killing, the prosecutor didn't even argue the point. The Sablans, now at ADX, are the first federal prisoners to face the death penalty in Colorado since Oklahoma bomber Timothy McViegh.

In the first seven years USP Florence was open there were eight prisoner murders. This murder rate "is comparable to that of California's Pelican Bay," writes Westword's Alan Prendergast, "and far worse than that of less `secure' state pens." Colorado's media rarely reports on any of these events. There is roughly one stabbing or beating in every ten prisoners, reports a BOP statistician at the Francis-Haney trial. David Lane notes that the real figure is probably much higher since many assaults are never reported.

"If a convict kills a convict, it's like killing two birds with one stone. That's one less to worry about, and maybe we can get the death penalty on the other convict, right? And nobody cares. Yet if there was a high school in Colorado, and once every ten months, one member of the student body viciously and brutally killed another, and every week someone was getting stabbed, that would be front-page news. Nobody would tolerate that for one minute. But that's exactly what's going on in Florence," reports Lane.

Aryan Brotherhood

Other murders such as James Curtis Martin, who was stabbed in the neck and strangled, only accentuate the level of violence at USP Florence. "The federal system is in chaos," USP Florence prisoner Joseph Dougherty testified at the Francis-Haney trial, "all they can do is prosecute the winner." And the AB is purportedly smack-dab in the middle of some of these acts, not only at ADX but throughout the USP. According to a 110-page indictment unsealed in Los Angles last November, the AB is run by Barry Byron Mills and Tyler Davis Bingham, both ADX prisoners.

According to the indictment, in 1980, the AB established the "Federal Commission" to run the AB inside the USP. By the early 1990s, a middle-management "council" was formed to run the AB's day-to-day operations inside USP which freed the Federal Commission to work on long-term issues. The indictment indicates that a government informant suggested in 1984, after AB members Thomas Silverstein and Clayton Fountain murdered prison guards at USP Marion the previous year, that guard murders would "spread like cancer lesions" which could be stopped by centralizing AB members in one prison. This could be why so many top AB gang leaders are at ADX.

The indictment also claims 32 murders over the past 23 years have been directly ordered by AB members, 16 of them successfully completed. Even the "Dapper Don," John Gotti, when he wanted retaliation for an attack against him at USP Marion, went directly to AB leaders at Marion. Although unsuccessful, the killing was assigned to an AB member and the Federal Commission headquarters at ADX was informed.

What prompted Tony Francis to escape has its roots in AB activity as well. A wave of race wars swept the USP system in the 1980s and again in the 1990s, especially between the Aryan Brotherhood and DC Blacks. For example, after an escalating series of racial attacks across the USP system in 1996, involving the DC Blacks, the AB, and other affiliated groups such as the Dirty White Boys, a white USP Lewisberg prisoner was murdered by being stabbed 22 times. He had recently converted to Islam with the blessing of black Muslim prisoners. In a payback move, another white prisoner known as "Tennessee" was killed, supposedly by black prisoners. With the blacks believing Francis was AB, and with no backing from the AB since Francis was not of the fold, Francis was a sitting duck.

During the year that followed the Lewisberg murders, retaliatory killings swept throughout the USP which, according to one of Francis' attorneys, Janine Yunker, culminated in the murders of Abdul Salaam and Frank Joyner, black cellies at Lewisberg. Salaam had only recently arrived at Lewisberg from Florence where he left many friends behind. His killers, too, had come from Florence. The Lewisberg Warden had "absolutely no doubt" that AB leaders in Florence ordered the murders.

Snitch Unit: Who's Foolin' Who?

When supposed AB defectors claimed to want to help the government against their own, federal officials "rose to the occasion like Shriners at a testimonial dinner" as Westword's Alan Prendergast aptly stated. A special unit known as H-Unit was established within ADX so the snitches could divulge the AB's structure, plots, communications network, and their methods for breaching security and manipulating staff.

Snitches made training videos depicting scenarios exposing how prisoners compromise staff, procure drugs by phone, and make weapons and escape tools. Although ADX officials won't acknowledge the snitch unit, they do acknowledge the existence of the training videos which they claim were used at annual "refresher" training sessions.

Danny Weeks, a former prisoner at ADX H-Unit, has now snitched on the snitches. He claims that the H-Unit intelligence operation was actually "a fraud engineered by prisoners who exaggerated their gang status and. knowledge of criminal activity within ADX to curry favor and win extraordinary privileges." These privileges ranged from special meals and X-rated entertainment to promises of pay and transfers to less-secure facilities to computers with Internet access. Less credible are claims of handcuff keys and materials for making weapons. In return, the snitches were allowed to review confidential government files from pending criminal investigations of former associates, search prisoner mail for coded gang messages, and identify from employee pictures and work histories ADX guards who were suspected of working with the gangs.

One identified guard, Joseph Principe, was placed on dutyless paid "home duty" for months based on allegations that he was involved in various schemes ranging from assisting the AB to drug smuggling to prisoner abuse as one of "The Cowboys." Weeks claims the H-Unit snitches lied about Principe's alleged involvement to convince officials "that half of the cops here were helping the AB and that the AB was the most sophisticated bunch of dudes to ever come down the pike." But the Los Angeles indictment alleges that the AB bought assistance from Principe, such as filing false reports on the AB's instructions and helping gang leaders meet unobserved by other guards.

Principe denies both allegations, claiming these actions were impossible since ADX guards are monitored as closely as the prisoners. "This is the age of the snitch," Principe says. "They were so afraid of looking bad that they had to give up somebody. When you go through something like this, you realize how corrupt our system is." Principe, who is characterized by former associates as a violent speed freak with a god complex, is currently serving time in the Colorado Department of Corrections for unrelated state charges of assaulting and menacing an ex-girlfriend and a drug dealer.

Further evidence of H-Unit's existence comes from internal BOP documents reflecting guard objections and concerns about "providing tools and unusual privileges to high-security prisoners" in the unit. Former ADX Warden Michael Pugh has been accused by guards of using H-Unit to "get dirt" on them in an effort to silence the guard's union. Principe was a former union steward and outspoken critic of Warden Pugh.

In addition to union-busting, allegations against Pugh included "misuse of public funds, punitive transfers, security violations, and claims of `willful misconduct' that may have played a role in an inmate suicide," writes Westword's Alan Prendergast.

More revealing though are lawsuits filed by ADX prisoners. John Greshner filed suit claiming the intelligence-gathering operation of H-Unit violated his civil rights. Danny Weeks attached exhibits to his suit showing lists of suspect's names and confidential identifying DEA file numbers for a drug smuggling investigation in Mexico and Texas. Warden Pugh claims surprise at Week's information.

The Guards

Violence and corruption at ADX and USP Florence is not limited to prisoners. The guards often do little to prevent the violence; in fact, they sometimes promote it. For example, there are reports of ADX guards placing rival gang members in enclosed areas to battle like gladiators. David Lane, one of Tony Francis' attorneys, also represents Robert Jones, a black ADX prisoner attacked by an AB member with a razor in a narrow sallyport on the way to the yard. Although ADX movement is closely supervised, the attack continued for several minutes before guards intervened, according to Jones.

For a 30-month period from 1995-1997, a gang of USP Florence SHU guards calling themselves "The Cowboys" roamed the concrete corridors of the SHU punching, kicking, and torturing prisoners who were chained, shackled, and manacled. The Cowboys then filed false reports claiming the prisoners provoked the violence. Guards would even injure themselves to authenticate their mission. The Cowboys also placed urine and feces in the food of unsuspecting prisoners.

The Cowboys were a "secret wrecking squad" formed from staff "frustrated with perceived lenient treatment" of SHU prisoners who assaulted guards. The SHU houses disciplinary and protective custody prisoners as well as gang leaders.

The Cowboys were indicted in November 2000 after former USP Florence Lt. David Armstrong struck a deal with federal prosecutors. Like many prisoners who turn on each other, the Cowboys threatened other staff to keep quiet and "lie `til you die" about the abuse, only to turn on each other once exposed [PLN, Sept. `01].

The Estrella incident underscores the guard incompetence at the SHU. There was no guard intervention in such a savage murder, even though the SHU was supposedly cleaned up and monitoring increased after a Department of Justice investigation into guard corruption and abuse stemming from The Cowboys and Melendez incidences.

The Administrators

Robert Hood, the current ADX Warden, declined comment on the AB's activities and the snitch unit. ADX officials won't even confirm the existence of the unit despite the extensive claims of Danny Weeks, the investigative journalism of Westword's Alan Prendergast, it's acknowledgment by former ADX guard Joseph Principe, and lawsuits by ADX prisoners. The standard response rings throughout the ADX administration: "we can't comment on the allegations because they are the subject of an indictment."

This was the official response of Warden Hood's executive assistant, Wendy Montgomery, to the Denver Post when asked about these allegations. At USP Florence maximum the executive assistant is fourth in command, a position once filled by Christine Achenbach who was convicted last December of sexual abuse of a ward. Achenbach had a sexual relationship with both Ollie Perryman and Marvin Linnear, Crips gang leaders at USP Florence. As a "shot caller" for the Crips gang, Perryman was "looking for an edge in the power struggle" with other gangs. This relationship extended to warnings of impending shakedowns, locations of cameras, and access to "off-limits, less-secure areas." Tipped off by Achenbach, Perrymen threatened those who knew or suspected their relationship to keep them quiet-another catalyst for violence in the most violent prison in America.

A former USP Florence manager, Kellee Kissinger, pled guilty last year to similar charges stemming from her sexual relationships with prisoners Gerald Bailey and Ricky Harris. After resigning from USP Florence, and being dumped by her fiance, Kissinger moved in with her friend Achenbach who had likewise just resigned. Kissinger witnessed almost daily letters and money orders to Linnear from Achenbach. Like so many others within the corrupt confines of USP Florence, guards and prisoners alike, Kissinger betrayed her friend and entered into a plea agreement to testify against Achenbach, despite Achenbach's housemate hospitality.

The Press

Preferring puff pieces over the real tragedies, the mainstream media has ignored the violence and corruption of USP Florence and ADX for most of its history. Rather, the mainstream media has touted ADX as the BOP's pristine flagship while ignoring the human suffering behind the extreme layers of security. Alternative publications such as Prison Legal News and Westword have been banned from USP Florence and ADX for their exposure of its atrocities. PLN has been banned for over two years and preparations are underway to challenge the censorship in court.

In addition to PLN and Westword, publications ranging from the Christian Science Monitor to The New Yorker have been banned "simply because that issue contains an article that makes reference to a prisoner somewhere." As Westword's Alan Prendergast writes, "any article `that contains specific information written by or about an inmate or inmates and their causes' would be subject to confiscation as `third-party inmateto-inmate correspondence'" under a policy instituted by former Warden Pugh. Additional prison regulations include rules prohibiting bylines and unauthorized public contact, both of which have been used to punish prisoners who dare to lay pen to paper [PLN, Jan. `03].

A debt of gratitude is owed to Westword's Alan Prendergast for his many investigative reports, some of which were used in preparing this story and without which this story would not have been possible.

Additional Sources: The Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, Gazette Telegraph (Colorado Springs).

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