You Are Now Entering the Thunderdome
A UT student finds drug abuse, violence, corruption and cage matches at a Beaumont, Texas, prison.
By Leah Caldwell, University of Texas – Austin
One could drive straight from Texas all the way to California on I-10. This interstate freeway cuts across the United States – through emblems of the American Dream like the Grand Canyon and Hollywood. I-10 also slices through Beaumont Federal Correctional Complex, a federal prison complex and an American reality for a large segment of the population. The U.S. prison population topped 1.5 million in 2004 and continues to grow.
Over 150,000 prisoners are warehoused in the Lone Star state, and 445 are on death row, though that number is a substantial reduction from the ‘90s, when Governor George W. Bush oversaw 152 executions. It’s the sheer enormity of numbers that makes Texas a national magnet for those seeking to make sense of our prison nation.
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.
Though much attention has been focused on the failings of the private prison industry, taking a closer look at some of the shocking problems at Beaumont raises a number of questions about how our federal prisons are being managed.
“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 “thunderdome.” 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 it – a place where two men fight to the death.
At USP Beaumont, witnesses claimed that guards paired up rival 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 the “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 fourth 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. The 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 “thunderdome.” 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.
“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 (54.1%) of those prisoners are convicted drug offenders, according to the BOP website. At USP Beaumont, 33.1% 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. Reportedly, 7.84% of the approximately 1,300 prisoners at USP Beaumont tested positive for drug use and the overall drug misconduct rate was 23.25% – a rate that includes such behaviors as staff and visitors bringing drugs into prison. (By comparison, the BOP national rate for positive drug tests was 1.94% and 3.04% 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 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.
In high security prisons such as USP Beaumont, the guards are a necessary conduit for drug flow. 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.
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 apparently not in the database. But the official said that assault by staff on prisoners “doesn’t happen a lot.”
Yet federal prisons have seen their share of 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.
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. The arm of negligence extends into U.S. private prisons as well, which often receive even less oversight than the BOP. 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.
This article will appear in the April 2005 edition of Prison Legal News.