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USP Beaumont, Texas: Murder and Mayhem in the Thunder Dome

Located in East Texas, the Federal Correctional Complex (FCC) at Beaumont is made up of a trio of federal prisons that are home to 5,667 prisoners. These prisons are run by the Bureau of Prisons, which is the federal arm of the U.S. prison system and an agency of the Department of Justice. The BOP oversees more than 150,000 U.S. prisoners; 21,488 of them are imprisoned in Texas.

It is normally the failings of the private prison industry that receive the most attention, but by taking a closer look at the federally-managed Beaumont complex, a number of questions are raised regarding the management of federal prisons.

Recognizing the inherent dignity of all human beings and their potential for change, the Bureau of Prisons treats inmates fairly and responsively and affords them opportunities for self-improvement to facilitate their successful re-entry into the community."

(All italicized quotes are excerpts from the Bureau of Prison's Vision Statement" from the State of the Bureau 2001" Report.)

The U.S. Penitentiary in Beaumont is home to what prisoners call the thunder dome." This moniker, borrowed from the Mad Max fantasy flicks of the 1980s, refers to the place where two go in and only one leaves alive," as the film synopsis puts ita place where two men fight to the death.

At USP Beaumont, witnesses claimed that guards paired up rival segregation prisoners in the 15-by-20 ft. recreation cages and let the prisoners go at it. In January 2001, one of the matches was fatal. Prisoners Shannon Wayne Agofsky and Luther Plant were in a rec cage" when, according to a Beaumont prison guard's testimony in July 2004, Agofsky stomped on Plant's head, which caused his death nearly two hours later. Forensic experts testified that Plant had drowned in his own blood.

While BOP and FBI officials acknowledge that this was the fifth murder at USP Beaumont since its opening in 1997, they refused to disclose any details to the media relating to the three other homicides, such as the name of the victim, date, time or manner of death, even though these types of facts are routinely released to news media in non-prison homicides.
The prosecution was able to seek the death penalty for Agofsky in 2004 under a 1994 crime bill that made murder by a federal prisoner a death penalty offense. Agofsky, who was serving a life sentence without parole, was cast by the prosecution as an experienced martial artist waiting to attack. Agofsky has a black belt in Hwa Rang Do, a branch of martial arts which translates literally as The way of the flowering manhood."

A November 2000 letter written by Agofsky was also presented at the trial. He wrote, All I do is work out, wait to leave and hope the cops mess up and let me around some other scumbag so I can test out my hand!" The authorities apparently gave him that opportunity when he was put in the rec cage with his opponent, Plant, who had served eight years of his 15-year sentence on charges of arson in a 1987 nightclub fire in Texas.
Christopher Matt, a Beaumont prison guard testified that it was his responsibility to pair up the prisoners in the rec cages, and he said that he did not sense hostility between the two prisoners. Witnesses at the trial maintained that pairing up prisoners in cages and allowing them to fight was a common practice, so common that nicknames sprouted up like gladiator school" and the aforementioned thunder dome." Prison officials deny this. Agofsky's defense contended that the guard did not even witness the fight, and three prisoners testified that Agofsky was not the instigator. Agofsky, who had recently lost his 2000 appeal for the 1989 kidnapping and murder of Dan Short, a Missouri bank president, was convicted and sentenced to death in the murder of Plant in September 2004.
After his conviction, Agofsky was transferred to the ADX in Florence, Colorado, the BOP's super max" prison in the Rocky Mountains. The Bureau of Prisons tried to prevent contact between this reporter and Agofsky on a few separate occasions. Letters between Agofsky and I were delayed and false information was given to me by a bureau employee at the Colorado ADX where Agofsky is imprisoned, [ the federal death row is located at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana]. These actions were seemingly intended to cause confusion and delay correspondence.

I was told by a Colorado ADX employee that a phone conversation between Agofsky and I could be arranged, yet Agofsky would have to place the call. I sent a letter to Agofsky with my phone number and awaited a call. I got a call, but it was from Agofsky's mother. Her son had contacted her and instructed her to phone me. She related to me that it would be impossible for Agofsky to call me because he was allowed limited calls per month and those were restricted to family members. During this conversation, Agofsky's mother told me that Agofsky had sent me a letter detailing his experiences. Months later, I have yet to receive any letter from Agofsky. Agofsky's trial and appellate counsel refused to comment on the circumstances of the murder citing the pending appeal.

Agofsky is not the only Beaumont prisoner to be transferred to the Colorado ADX.

In April 2005, two more prisoners at USP Beaumont were indicted in a 1999 stabbing death of another prisoner. Arzell Gulley and David Lee Jackson are now in Colorado facing charges of first degree murder and the use of a dangerous weapon in a federal facility. If convicted, they face the death penalty or a life sentence. The US Attorney's office did not explain the six year lapse between the murder and the indictment.

In an unrelated case, prisoner Keith Barnes was transferred to USP Beaumont in May 2005. Originally convicted in Washington D.C. for murder and conspiracy to rob, Barnes had testified against a codefendant for a reduction in his sentence and, as a result of his cooperation with authorities, bounced from prison to prison seeking protection from the codefendant's numerous connections within the prison system. According to the family's spokesperson, Sharon Brown, Barnes knew he was going to die. Fellow prisoners targeted Barnes incessantly, at one point he was placed in a cell with another prisoner who fought him all night long. At this point, Barnes was supposed to be under protective custody. He sought removal from the BOP system, but instead he was transferred to USP Beaumont on May 6, 2005. The next day, Barnes was dead with 69 stab wounds. Since then, Beaumont has been tight-lipped with information surrounding the murder and Barnes' family is trying to be patient, but they want answers.

Brown said the family only wanted to know the basics surrounding Keith's murder as well as ensure protection for his mother who fears for her life. Brown has called USP Beaumont looking for answers, but she has come to the conclusion that they were giving her the run around" and keeping everything hush-hush." When USP Beaumont did release information to the family, this information has not always been consistent. After receiving notification of Keith's death on Mother's day, the family was told that Keith had been found dead. Only later did they learn that Keith was pronounced dead at the hospital. We have the right to know what happened to him," Brown said.

The Bureau ensures the physical safety of all inmates through a controlled environment which meets each inmate's need for security through the elimination of violence, predatory behavior, gang activity, drug use, and inmate weapons.

There are 153,084 prisoners incarcerated in Bureau of Prison facilities and 88,619 (54%) of those prisoners are convicted drug offenders, according to the BOP website. At USP Beaumont, 33% of the prisoner population is in for drug offenses. With a fair amount of people imprisoned for drug offenses, the demand for drugs inside prisons has not ceased. In a 2001 report by the Office of the Inspector General, USP Beaumont was reported to have the highest percentage of positive drug tests and drug misconduct rate in the entire BOP. In the Inspector General's report, approximately 8% of the approximately 1,300 prisoners at USP Beaumont tested positive for drug use and the overall drug misconduct rate was 23%. (By comparison, the BOP national rate for positive drug tests was 2% and 3% for high security prisons.)

Access to drugs in prisons, more specifically high security prisons, generally requires complicity from prison employees. The prisoners at USP Beaumont have not been hard-pressed to find this cooperation. Since 2003, at least five guards are known to have been indicted for either conspiracy to possess and/or possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute solely in the Beaumont prisons. The monitoring of staff involvement in drug smuggling by the BOP is meager, and this lack of oversight has contributed to the amount of drugs available inside prisons.
A 2003 report entitled The Federal Bureau of Prisons' Drug Interdiction Activities, from the Office of the Inspector General, is primarily dedicated to addressing the BOP's drug problem," and it details the role of the prison staff in making drugs accessible to prisoners.

In 2000, a prison guard attempted to smuggle 109 grams of crack cocaine, 73 grams of black tar heroin, and 25 grams of white heroin" into USP Beaumont. The report demonstrates how staff involvement in drug smuggling can increase the reach and amount of drugs in the prisons when this quantity is packaged and distributed.

The report also documents the effects of ion spectrometry technology, which allows prison officials to monitor the inflow of drugs through the random scanning of prison visitors for any drugs. A test run of the technology at many of the BOP facilities was used to gauge its effects on levels of drug usage in a select group of federal prisons. Though the ion spectrometry was effective in reducing drug usage in low and medium security prisons, it did not have the intended results in high security prisons. Staff are not subjected to ion scans.

USP Beaumont was blamed for the disappointing figures. The report stated, Another factor cited that affected the overall figures for high security institutions was the emergence of USP Beaumont, Texas, from a new penitentiary that was relatively drug-free to a penitentiary that demonstrated a very high rate of drug misconducts with an increase of 70.3% in its drug misconduct rate."

Even when addressing drug use in the BOP as a whole, the Beaumont prisons have stood out as exemplary cases for some of the core problems that have afflicted the system. In 2001, USP Beaumont was reported to have the highest percentage of positive drug tests and drug misconduct rate in the entire BOP.

All Bureau of Prisons staff share a common role as correctional workers, which requires a mutual responsibility for maintaining safe and secure institutions and for modeling society's mainstream values and norms.
According to an official at USP Beaumont, there were 31 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults in fiscal year 2001; 25 prisoner-on-staff assaults; and the figures for staff-on-prisoner assaults are not in the database. But the official said that assault by staff on prisoners doesn't happen a lot." But without figures, however reliable, this assertion cannot be verified one way or the other.

Yet the Beaumont federal prisons have seen their share of staff assault cases. In 2001, Bryan Small, a Beaumont prison guard, was indicted for conspiracy to defraud the United States." Small was the supervisor of guards at the Federal Correctional Institution in Beaumont, another BOP-run facility, while prisoners were allegedly being assaulted by guards for several months in 1999. Small was the only guard charged.
Rhonda Nicole Mims, another guard at the complex in Beaumont, is facing charges of sexual contact with a prisoner. She faces a six month prison term and a $5,000 fine if convicted.

In the Office of the Inspector General's semi-annual report to Congress, it was reported that the OIG received 2,606 complaints involving the BOP from April 1 to Sept. 30, 2004. The report said, The most common allegations made against BOP employees included job performance failure, use of unnecessary force, official misconduct, and off-duty misconduct. The vast majority of complaints dealt with non-criminal issues that the OIG referred to the BOP's Office of Internal Affairs."

From these complaints, 236 cases of BOP employee misconduct were opened. The report said that that the misconduct ranged from bribery of a public official, sexual abuse of inmates, and introduction of contraband.
The Beaumont prisons are not the sole manifestations of a woefully inadequate system. Simultaneously, the full extent of BOP mismanagement has yet to be fully reported because of the highly effective damage control by its press corps and its ability to restrict public access to information. Yet even with the limited amount of information available, the troubles at just one Texas prison in the BOP system should be troubling for any American.

Leah Caldwell is a history student at the University of Texas at Austin.

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