Six guards and a warden have been convicted in federal court of charges stemming from brutal beatings and subsequent cover up attempts at the 1,200 man Lea County Correctional Facility in Hoots, New Mexico, which holds state prisoners and is privately-run by Wackenhut Corrections Corporation.
The December 1998 incident started when prisoner Eric Duran refused to take his assigned seat in the dining hall and had an argument with guards Kendall Lipscomb and Lt. William Fuller. Duran was taken to "P-15 hallway" where Lipscomb and Fuller repeatedly kicked him in the head while he lay handcuffed and compliant on the floor with guards Lt. Matias Serrata, Jr. and Gary Butler close at hand. During the assault, Fuller looked up and saw other guards witnessing the beating through nearby windows. His reaction was to angrily motion the guards away from the windows. Duran lost consciousness and had to be rushed to a hospital. He still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder four years later.
In an attempt to cover up the beating, Butler created injuries by punching himself in the face and filed false assault charges against Duran at a police station. The guards then concocted the story that Duran had injured himself by hitting the wall, floor and a window sill while resisting being restrained. They blamed the lack of a corroborating video tape on camera malfunction. The story fell apart when boot polish was discovered on Duran's temple near his right ear.
Charges were filed against the guards by the U. S. Department of Justice. In August 2000, Butler pleaded guilty to civil rights and conspiracy charges and agreed to testify against Fuller and Lipscomb. On April 12, 2001, after Butler testified at their trial, Fuller and Lipscomb were convicted of violating Duran's civil rights and Serrate was convicted of failing to stop the assault. All three were also convicted of obstruction of justice charges.
Serrata's defense attorney stated that he definitely plans to file an appeal. He alleged that his client was convicted for being an observer and that other guards who also watched the beatings and were in a better position to intervene, but did now, were not prosecuted. "This, I think really was a classic case of selective prosecution," said the attorney.
In a separate federal criminal prosecution, Assistant Warden Raymond O'Rourke pleaded guilty on June 8, 2002, to obstruction of justice and deprivation of rights under color of law after former Wackenhut guard Thomas McCoy and Lt. Judson McPeters pleaded guilty on to two counts of obstruction of justice to avoid the more serious charges of violation of prisoners' civil rights. The cases stemmed from two separate beatings of prisoners, ordered by O'Rourke, which occurred in August, 1998.
Prisoner David Gonzales was slammed to the ground and handcuffed by McCoy and the burly, 6'7" McPeters. By his own admission, McCoy then "kicked and restrained [Gonzales] and twisted his ankle until it popped, while other officers also assaulted the inmate, although there was no penological reason for the use of force." McCoy also admitted to kicking prisoner Thomas McManaway twice in the testicles while McManaway was lying, fully restrained, on the shower floor. In both cases, the guards got together to concoct false stories to cover up the unjustified beatings which were ordered by O'Rourke.
Current prison warden Joe Williams, who assumed his position in 1999, claims to have reformed the prison by firing all the guards involved in the beatings and training his employees to treat prisoners with respect. "Those were the acts of individuals, not the prison. This place isn't a deep, dark abusive dungeon," said Williams, noting that the quality of life and conditions of confinement at the prison had been rated outstanding by the American Corrections Association, an industry self-interest group. However, the Justice Department stated that the assistant warden who ordered Gonzalez's beating was present when the beating took-place and C. Barry Crutchfield, McPeters's attorney, noted that the trial raised some serious questions about whether Wackenhut participated in or condoned the unlawful activities. "I mean, you shouldn't have this type of stuff going on with an organization of that size," said Crutchfield.
Represented by attorney Mark Donatelli of Santa Fe, McManaway and Duran have both filed federal civil rights suits based on the beatings. "This was not an isolated incident," said Donatelli. "It is part of the same pattern of physical abuse of prisoners that was taking place for months at the facility" Donatelli also expressed his belief that "the investigation and prosecution by the Justice Department will send a massage to other corrections officers that will help prevent other inmates from being victimized."
McCoy and McPeters face a maximum of five years in prison on each count. O'Rourke was sentenced to 21 months in the federal penitentiary.
Sources: Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press
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