Sentenced to Death: Who's Responsible for the Murder of Neil Early? - Rolling Stone
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Sentenced to Death: Who’s Responsible for the Murder of Neil Early?

How the killing of a 23-year-old inmate exposed the corruption of Arizona’s for-profit prison system

Illustration by Simon Prades for Rolling Stone

July 30th, 2010. A warm, clear night with a deflated beach ball of a moon, and three men were slipping through the perimeter fence of Kingman prison in Golden Valley, Arizona. Behind them, the prison rang with the muffled shouts and clanging of thousands of caged men. Ahead, a pale strip of paved road and beyond that the shrub-spotted desert, silent and sentineled by tall cacti and coyotes. All of it, the desert, the prison, the three creeping men, encircled by mountain ranges that appeared as bluish smudges in the distance, like scrubbed chalk against the sky.

The privately operated, for-profit prison had opened for business six years earlier. Residents in the nearby town of Kingman rallied around the project after being told it would bring 300 jobs into their community and almost $700,000 in annual property taxes. What sealed the deal was the promise that the prison would house only DUI offenders – no rapists or murderers or armed robbers – just 1,400 intoxicated drivers with short sentences who would be given every chance at rehabilitation. In 2003, Dominion Correctional Services, out of Oklahoma, began construction on the 196-acre property. The company had speculatively purchased the land three years earlier, making a bet on a state known for having some of the most restrictive sentencing laws in the country and locking up a higher proportion of its people than all but three other states. (“Come on vacation, leave on probation” is an oft-repeated, unofficial state motto.)

As soon as 45-year-old Charles McCluskey was transferred to Kingman from a state prison, he’d started planning his escape. Security was such a joke, he later said, that he felt almost obligated to break out. McCluskey, brawny and slope-bellied, was serving three 15-year sentences for attempted murder and other crimes. His cousin and fiancee, Casslyn Mae Welch, had gotten hold of a couple of handguns, packed a getaway car with money and food, and thrown a pair of metal cutters over the fence. Now, she waited as each man made his way through the wire: McCluskey, along with Tracy Province, a 42-year-old serving a life sentence for murder and armed robbery, and 36-year-old Daniel Renwick, with two consecutive 22-year terms for two homicides.

Disoriented, overexcited perhaps, the three men and Welch couldn’t find the getaway vehicle, so they split up. When Renwick stumbled upon it, he took off on his own, leaving the others to hike four miles to the highway (Welch would later describe her companions as the “dumbest, unluckiest yo-yos in the world”). They hijacked a tractor-trailer and later “secured” a Nissan Sentra. At a rest stop in New Mexico, they noticed the roomy pickup truck of Gary and Linda Haas. Married for 40 years and retired from the General Motors plant in Oklahoma City, the couple were towing a travel trailer and had pulled over to walk their three little dogs: Prissy, Roxie and Bear. McCluskey and Province forced their way inside the Haases’ cab at gunpoint. After driving to a rural area off the interstate, they ordered the couple into the trailer, where McCluskey shot them to death. They left out food for the dogs, doused the trailer with alcohol and lit it up with the Haases’ bodies inside. It took law enforcement another 17 days to round up all four fugitives.

That’s how locals found out that Kingman was no longer a DUI-only prison. Far from it, in fact. Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) had chosen Management and Training Corp. (MTC) out of Utah to run the for-profit facility. MTC had a sweet deal that guaranteed the state would pay for 97 percent of the available beds – whether they were occupied or not. Many states give bed guarantees or lockup quotas to private-prison operators, but companies operating in Arizona have the highest lockup quotas in the country, ensuring payment for up to 100 percent of their prison beds. Only nine months after opening, in the summer of 2004, MTC had managed to expand its customer base: Quietly, stealthily, you might say, ADC had agreed to change Kingman’s designation from a DUI-only to a general-population prison. In December 2007, murderers were assigned to Kingman for the first time. No one informed the state Legislature, the Mohave County politicians or the local community. They found out on July 31st – in the worst possible way – that 40 percent of the current inmates had been convicted of violent crimes. When reporters asked why they had switched Kingman’s designation, the head of ADC, Charles Ryan, said that there just weren’t enough DUI offenders to fill Kingman’s beds. He didn’t add the obvious: Filling beds when you had to pay for them anyway was surely a smart fiscal move.

“It’s horrible here,” one inmate said. “There are more drugs inside than I’ve ever seen on the street.”

A subsequent ADC investigation found a slew of security flaws, from broken equipment to improperly trained staff. Along the perimeter fence where McCluskey, Province and Renwick had slipped through, there were burned-out lights on eight poles. The alarm system was so malfunctioning that staff routinely ignored it. (Despite regular false alarms – 89 on the day of the escape – the system hadn’t been serviced for two years.) ADC found exterior doors that were unlocked, and one actually propped open with a rock. Because MTC couldn’t hold on to employees, who routinely worked 12- to 16-hour days, 80 percent of the staff was newly hired or recently promoted on the night of the escape. After the men were discovered missing, it took more than an hour for MTC staffers to alert local law enforcement; when they did notify them, they didn’t know the names or even the races of the missing men. They “only knew they were wearing orange,” says Mohave County Sheriff Tom Sheahan.

Although ADC oversaw all private prisons in the state – four months before the escape, it had given the prison a good review – the agency laid most of the blame on MTC. ADC removed 238 dangerous criminals from Kingman and refused to fill or pay for the vacancies until MTC corrected the security flaws and retrained its staff. MTC responded by threatening to sue the state for $10 million for breach of contract. ADC caved and, incredibly, paid MTC more than $3 million back pay for the empty beds.

Five months later, ADC found that MTC still hadn’t fixed many of the problems. In fact, the inmates seemed to have taken control of Kingman. From 2010 to 2014, Kingman had the most inmate assaults and fights out of any of the state’s private prisons. There just weren’t enough employees to manage the numbers of men inside. Between 2006 and 2013, ADC levied 114 monetary sanctions against MTC for understaffing at Kingman, totaling nearly $2 million. ADC also discovered instances when MTC had actually lost control of the prison, citing at least 13 incidences in the previous five years when inmates had chased officers off the yard.

The violence was coupled with a thriving drug trade. Less than a month before the escape, Casslyn Mae Welch had been caught trying to smuggle in heroin during a visit. It wasn’t her first time, only the first time she got caught. After she told authorities a white-supremacist group paid her $200 for each delivery, they signed her up as a snitch and let her go. She and McCluskey continued to plan the escape.

A curtain had been lifted on the secretive workings of Kingman prison. The culture, the security flaws, the shoddy management were plainly revealed. And yet, for the next five years, MTC would continue to run Kingman, and Kingman would continue to swallow thousands of men, most of whom just wanted to do their time and get home intact and alive. Neil Early was shipped to Kingman in the spring of 2012. He was 20 years old, addicted to drugs and facing a five-year bid for shoplifting DVDs from Walmart. When he was murdered, on January 16th, 2015, there was one corrections officer watching more than 200 men.

In 2012, Neil Early was sentenced to five years in the Kingman correctional facility for stealing DVDs from Walmart; three years later, he was murdered by a group of fellow inmates. The identities of his killers are still unknown, and his parents, who are suing the facility, have yet to receive an explanation for how they lost their son. Photo credit: AZ Dept. of Corrections

Black Canyon City sits about three hours east of Kingman, nestled at the base of the Bradshaw Mountains in central Arizona. It’s a rough-edged, shaggy-haired kind of place, with a population of 2,800. The Earlys – Keith, Tammy and their sons, Neil and Tyler – lived in a long, tile-roofed stucco house that Keith designed himself. When Neil was 10, his grandpa gave him a Harley minibike, and his father cleared a track through three acres of land surrounding their place. Neil drove that Harley at what must’ve felt like breakneck speed, angels manning the barbed-wire fences and cacti as he flew by. Keith shakes his head now – not at his son’s fearlessness, but his own. His son had seemed unbreakable.

Neil was a skinny, brown-eyed kid with jug ears and a sharp-chinned, symmetrical face. Quick to smile, quick to joke. At 14, he started busing tables at Rock Springs Cafe, a local restaurant known for its homemade pies and active bar life. On slow nights, two of the cafe’s bartenders, Black Canyon City residents Nila Banfield and Laverne Peatey, would call up friends and neighbors and say, “What are you doing? Come on down!” “It was just a good old local bar,” Banfield says. They adored Neil. Other kids they hired were shy to the point of muteness, but Neil, gregarious Neil, would talk up anyone.

For all its homegrown sense of fun, there was a treacherous edge to growing up in BCC. Neil’s close buddy Jordan Taylor, who is 26 and speaks in an eager, artless manner, barely got out alive. He overdosed twice before taking off to Oregon, then Hawaii, and finally Switzerland, where he lives now, bartending at a restaurant and staying clean. “Black Canyon City is infested with meth addicts and bikers,” he says. “There was only one to two cops that would patrol town. It was the kind of a place where you can get away with anything.” Or as another of Neil’s friends, Austin Folkers, a.k.a. Ozzie, puts it, “I call it the place that you move to when your dreams die and you give up on life. Or you retired.”

Taylor’s mom and his ex-stepdad were both bikers. Folkers grew up in a foster family. Neil and his friends seemed as strongly bound as a band of fugitives. “We were always, always together,” Taylor says. “We were able to run free, but we ran free with really damaged minds.”

In 2005, Neil and his buddies started attending Boulder Creek High School in Anthem, a wealthy town 17 miles south. The 5,586-acre master-planned community boasts a country club with two 18-hole golf courses, artificial lakes stocked with trout, and a community park with a full-size kiddie railroad. Its slogan: “Life in abundance.” Anthem residents refer to Black Canyon City as Crack Canyon City; it’s their ghetto. “The thing about those of us from Black Canyon City, a lot of us came from humble origins,” says Michael Padrick, a childhood friend of Neil’s. “So there were cultural conflicts.”

Though Neil had played golf in the Junior PGA, he stopped playing when he started high school, telling his parents he didn’t connect with the team’s preppy players. In actuality, according to his friend Tim Trinidade, Neil tried out and didn’t make the first cut. He took up wrestling instead. He was skinny, still baby-faced and “136 pounds soaking wet,” his mother says. When he wrestled, he looked “like a giant grasshopper,” his father remembers, his voice almost unbearably filled with love. After a year, Neil quit that, too.

In their junior year, Neil and some of his friends started smoking Percocet. “This is, like, a rich white high school, so people got money to spend,” says Trinidade, who avoided the drug scene. “The other kids that didn’t would start stealing.” The dealer introduced them to a cheaper alternative: heroin. “Neil was like one of the golden kids,” says Trinidade. “It’s, like, if it could get him, it could get anybody.”

For a while, though, life was good for Neil and his buddies. They threw huge parties no Anthem kid could’ve gotten away with, but with so many AWOL parents in Black Canyon and so few cops, they were free to live “the adventure life,” as Taylor calls it. And that bad-boy aura was like honey to the Anthem girls. Neil always managed to snare the most beautiful ones, even though he wasn’t the best-looking guy in the room. Taylor asked one of those girls, what was it about Neil? “She said he was charming,” Taylor says. “And he could make any girl laugh.”

And the rich boys of Anthem? The BCC crew fought them, a lot. They also carried guns. And the girls liked that, too. “We weren’t conscious of what we were doing in any way, shape or form,” Taylor says. “In our minds, we weren’t able to see that we were going to move into breaking into houses and stealing money and robbing. We were never able to get that understood until it was too late.” It was pure luck that Neil got caught – it could’ve been any of them.

In his senior year of high school, Neil and a pal were nabbed for breaking into one of those fancy homes in Anthem and stealing diamond jewelry. They had planned to fence it and buy more dope. Neil got 10 months, but he was allowed to graduate from high school first. The day after graduation, in the winter of 2010, he was sentenced to 10 months at Safford prison. He was 18.

When Neil went into prison, he had a tattoo of “AZ” on his right ankle. Folkers, Taylor and Trinidade had the same tat – they’d gotten it together. The coroner’s report made after Neil’s murder noted several more: On the left ankle of the deceased, there was a tattoo of a padlock, and on the lower leg, a “portion of a demon’s face.” On Neil’s right ankle, above the Black Canyon crew’s “AZ,” a pair of praying hands. Across his upper chest, Neil had inked “my own worst enemy.”

A year after his release, in the fall of 2011, Neil was arrested again. He’d stolen DVDs from Walmart to sell or trade for dope. The judge gave him five years. “I can’t believe I’ve been so stupid,” he told his dad, his voice torched with self-loathing. “My life’s over.” In his inmate photo, Neil glowers at the camera, but the effect is less fierce than miserable. His dark hair is shorn close to his head, but it’s as soft as duck’s down. A couple of tiny scratches on his forehead look like he’s picked at a pimple. His younger brother, Tyler, says Neil was “at the lowest his life had ever been.” He was leaving a girlfriend behind; he didn’t know it yet, but she was pregnant.

Like many a parent of a drug-addicted child, the Earlys were guiltily relieved that Neil got locked up, thinking, well, at least now he’ll detox, have some time to get his head straight. Kingman still had the reputation as a rehab facility, though that had never been the reality. “Originally, it was a DUI prison and then it was a rehab prison,” Keith Early tells me. “So they were supposed to have all these classes. That’s what it was known for.”

Early, age 11, with his grandfather in the backyard of the family house in Black Canyon City, Arizona. After Early’s death, his younger brother says, “our whole family was messed up.” Courtesy of the Early family.

Kingman prison sat sprawled behind double rows of high chain-link fencing topped with coils of shiny razor wire. Grids of paved walkways and raked gravel connected several low, fortune-cookie-colored buildings. It looked like something alien planted in a moonscape, an inhospitable dwelling set down in an inhospitable place. Occasionally, there was a glimpse of orange-suited inmates moving in the dirt yards between the buildings, Day-Glo men behind a scrim of barbed wire. Kingman prison, Deliverer of Jobs and Tax Revenue, Redeemer of the Recklessly and Lucklessly Drunk, was a facade. A sales pitch. Behind that front, the facility had mutated into its true persona: a business with the businesslike goal of making as much profit as possible. It was always that, of course; it should’ve been obvious to everyone.

One way to maximize profit: Keep expenses low. In December 2006, MTC was found to be in “substantial noncompliance” with its contract, according to ADC’s monthly report. Although MTC had committed to providing substance-abuse counseling for its inmates, fewer than a third were in treatment. Of 18 full-time substance-abuse counselors MTC was contracted to provide, only five of those positions had been filled. MTC’s corrections officers at Kingman were also among the most poorly paid in the state. The turnover was high, as it was in all the private prisons, which meant that there were very few seasoned and experienced officers working at Kingman.

In 2008, ADC approved a request to add 2,000 more beds to the facility. With the construction of Cerbat, the new minimum-security section, Kingman was capable of housing 3,400 inmates, rather than the originally slated 1,400. At $60 a day per inmate, MTC was now taking in more than $70 million annually from just this one prison.

Cerbat, where Neil was housed, was an open, dorm-style facility, perfect for DUI offenders. There were 10 dorms, 200 men assigned to each. Inmates were allocated a steel-frame bed, a small side table, two shelves and a knee-high locker. The floors were unadorned cement, the shelves and cinder blocks were painted blue and gray. Seen from above, the rows of cubicles would look like a video-game maze.

Inmates divide themselves along racial and ethnic lines: the whites, the blacks, the Mexican-Americans, the Mexican nationals and a tiny group of Native Americans. The white population of the state’s prisons is controlled by a handful of Aryan Brotherhood members locked down in isolation units in a supermax in Florence, Arizona. (Kingman belonged to David Bounds, a 44-year-old Aryan Brotherhood member serving a life sentence for first-degree murder). A “head” is deputized to run the day-to-day inside each facility. These guys, the alpha males, the big dogs, serve as spokesmen when dealing with the prison administration. They direct all commerce among their group, arbitrate disputes and mete out justice. Or, more likely, delegate that task to their boys, who, in turn, delegate it to greener, hungrier inmates. As Chris, a 25-year-old white guy who ran one dorm (and asked to not use his real name), puts it, “I go get a couple youngsters that want to put in some work and have them beat the living dog shit out of a dude.”

Shortly after arriving at Kingman, Chris was put in charge of a dorm in Hualapai, another section of the prison, where he was responsible for keeping order and collecting “rent” – a percentage of drug sales, gambling proceeds and the unofficial commissaries. To the heads and their subordinates, inmates like Neil were nothing but cash cows. “There was another white dude there that wanted to get clean and stop doing dope so bad,” Chris remembers. “He was so strung out. His family was just in fucking shambles because they were sending probably $1,500 a week. And, I mean, I’m not gonna let him get clean.”

Hundreds of inmates would be in debt at any given time, always a risky proposition in a place like Kingman. If an inmate’s debt got high enough, he was put “on block” – no more dope, commissary or gambling until he paid it off. On a Facebook site for the relatives of Kingman inmates, parents fret about what to do when a son calls up asking for far more money than needed to buy stamps or razors or soap. If they send money, are they enabling his drug use? If they don’t, will he get hurt?

In reality, Neil was locked up in two prisons, one run by MTC and one more efficiently and brutally run by the Aryan Brotherhood. The whole system of illegal enterprise, including unwritten codes of conduct (white boys had to shower every day, for instance, and spend at least two hours working out) and savage justice, ran almost unimpeded by the corrections staff. In this way, Kingman stood out from any other institution Chris had been housed in. “Most of the guards at Kingman don’t care – they really don’t give a fuck,” Chris says. “They used to walk by watching people shoot dope. They’d sit there and be like, ‘Hey, man, it’s count time. Put the dope away.’ ”

Inmates actually found a way to dictate which officers worked their units, using a tactic dubbed “group on.” When they didn’t like a guard, they would surround him or her until the officer called a supervisor. MTC would then usually move that guard to another unit for his or her own protection. So it’s not surprising that many guards were apathetic; their only goal was to make it home each day in one piece. Others became bullies. These “badge heavy” guards were free with profanity, threats and pepper spray. As Chris says, “Officers in there are either like gung ho, ‘I’m gonna bust you,’ or it’s ‘I’m here to collect a paycheck, don’t beat me, don’t make me do any paperwork.’ ”

Inmates in trouble for breaking convict rules or mounting debt have only two options, both of them bad: Commit a serious enough infraction to get your security status upgraded and be shipped to a higher-security facility; or request protective custody – and be branded a snitch. When an inmate requests protection, prison administration will immediately demand information on other inmates – who’s dealing drugs, who’s threatened to hurt you? But even an inmate who talks is rarely granted protective custody, or “PC.” Instead, he’s moved to another prison. Any lateral transfer between facilities – minimum security to minimum security, for instance – is regarded with suspicion by other inmates.

When Neil entered Kingman, he would’ve been put on a probation period – no buying drugs or even potato chips – until the white heads checked him out. Their guys in Inmate Property would find out where he last did time and call a contact (on an illegal cellphone) to check if he’d run away from a debt. If he had, and still couldn’t pay what he owed? “We kill him,” Chris says. “We don’t want the money anymore.”

Meanwhile, the drugs just kept flowing. In March 2011, Linda Castro Granados, a 26-year-old out of Phoenix, was arrested after dropping a bag of contraband and drugs into a parking-lot trash can. The next month, a K-9 alerted officers to 33-year-old Christina Cisneros, who was transporting heroin in her socks. They found more dope during a cavity search. In May, 42-year-old Deena Dull got caught passing marijuana, meth, opium and a SIM card to a prisoner. Staffers were rarely checked when they reported to duty.

“It’s horrible here,” one inmate told his mother. “The drugs are so prolific. Staff brings it in. Visitors bring it in. There’s more drugs in here than I’ve ever seen on the street.” He had kicked a heroin addiction years earlier, but now he was offered dope and meth on a daily basis. He estimated that 80 percent of the inmates in his section were addicted.

During the three years Neil spent in Kingman, he told his parents that he attended church, Narcotics Anonymous and HVAC classes. No one knows for sure how long he stayed clean. What is known is that he frequently called his friends, asking them to put money on another inmate’s account. “He would be so scared,” Taylor says. After another BCC friend got a call from Neil, he frantically asked his mother to drive him to Western Union so he could send money. Trinidade ignored the last few texts from Neil – he wasn’t flush himself, and it felt like a bottomless hole. “When he called me again for money, I said no,” Taylor says. “Apparently that’s why he died.”

A dorm at Kingman, June 2016. Photo credit: Tom Tingle/The Republic/USA TODAY NETWORK/Sipa USA

Tom Tingle/The Republic/USA TODAY NETWORK/Sipa USA

Nothing at all would be known about Neil’s murder if his parents hadn’t filed a lawsuit. After his death, ADC investigated, but it has kept the results of its inquiry to itself. The reason? The investigation is still “open,” even now, three years later. Deaths in prison are like this; for all intents and purposes, they’ve occurred in a foreign country ruled by a dictatorship. The Earlys’ lawsuit is ongoing, the judge has issued a gag order, but public filings offer a window into what happened.

Though there are numerous cameras in the Cerbat unit, no surviving footage of the events exists because, according to ADC’s own investigator, MTC staff failed to preserve the footage, taping over it even though a brutal and fatal assault had occurred in the unit that night. The investigator seemingly viewed the footage, though, before it was erased, and was able to outline the events of the night of January 16th, 2015.

Officer John Albanese, on duty that night, reported making 20 informal security and welfare checks between 2 p.m. and 9:40 p.m. – all 20 were noted as “secure” with nothing to report. But at 8:34 p.m., Neil was approached by an inmate known “to have been ‘in charge of’ ” the unit, the head of the whites in Neil’s dorm. Neil was then seen walking into the bathroom, an area without security cameras, known to inmates and guards alike as the place to conduct illicit business. Over the next 22 minutes, inmates were observed on camera going in and out of the bathroom, “coming and going in strange patterns.” At 8:56 p.m., Neil was seen exiting, holding his head in his hands and assisted by another inmate.

According to the ADC investigator, Neil was brutally beaten by inmates, who rotated between assaulting him (most likely with padlocks stuffed in socks) and serving as lookouts. Once he’d returned to his bed, Neil pressed his head against his pillow, saying it hurt. “It’s cold in here,” Neil said. “I need my helmet. Get the cops.”

An inmate summoned Albanese. Neil was talking gibberish, and his limbs had begun to “seize up.” At some point after seeing Neil, Albanese contacted Officer Giovanni Gonzalez, asking him to come to Dorm 10 with a wheelchair. But the officers weren’t able to get Neil into the chair because his limbs were rigid. This is an indication of what’s called decorticate posturing, sometimes referred to as “mummy baby”: The legs are held out straight and the arms are bent into the body, hands clenched and held against the chest. It’s a sign of severe damage to the brain and requires immediate medical treatment. Gonzalez initiated the Incident Command System at 9:47 p.m. Almost one hour had passed since the assault.

Eight minutes later, nurse Melissa Johnson reported to the dorm. “No observable trauma,” she wrote in her clinical report. She made note of an inmate’s observation that Neil was suffering from “seizure-like activity.” From there a series of decisions were made that likely sealed Neil’s fate. Instead of alerting EMS, Johnson applied a rigid cervical collar, used to stabilize a patient’s spine following trauma such as whiplash, which may have reduced Neil’s chances of survival even further. Those types of collars restrict blood drainage from the head, even as blood continues pumping into it. Neil’s brain was now in a pressure cooker.

At an unknown time – because Johnson didn’t document it – she called Dr. Arshad Tariq, who regularly oversaw medical care at Kingman. Both worked for Correctional Healthcare, the company contracted to provide health care for Kingman inmates. Johnson told Tariq that Neil had a track mark near his right elbow; Tariq told her to administer Ativan for his “seizure-like” symptoms. According to Johnson, Tariq told her to call EMS only if the Ativan didn’t work. Tariq says he told her to call EMS immediately. In any case, at 10:35 p.m., Johnson phoned an administrator at Correctional Healthcare to get permission to call an ambulance for an “unresponsive” inmate.

The River Valley Medical ambulance arrived at Kingman at 11:10 p.m. The medics noted a “baseball-size contusion and swelling” on the left side of Neil’s head. Upon arrival at Kingman Regional Medical Center, it took only eight minutes for the medical staff to request emergency air transport to a level-one trauma center in Las Vegas. MTC officers refused to permit the transport, though, until they got approval from their lieutenant. Finally, they got the OK, and Neil was loaded onto the helicopter at 1:06 a.m.

When the call came, it was the dead of night. Keith was out of town. Tammy, jarred from sleep, grappled for the phone. She heard a man saying he was from the prison and that they’d just taken Neil to the hospital. A week earlier, Neil had been in the infirmary with the flu. Tammy asked, “Is he OK? Is he breathing?”

“He’s breathing,” the man said. “OK. I just thought we’d let you know.” The phone clicked off. Neil’s 14-year-old brother, Tyler, woke to the sound of his mother’s voice outside his pitch-black bedroom. “Whoa, that’s kind of creepy,” he thought. He found her sitting in the office, crying.

The next morning, Keith rang Kingman but was told he didn’t have medical clearance. That afternoon, the prison chaplain phoned. They’ve taken your son to the trauma center in Las Vegas, he said. “Can we visit him?” Keith asked. Relating the call today, Keith has to choke back tears. “He tells me that he’ll have to check with the warden, but don’t expect Neil to be there when you get there.”

Keith, Tammy and Tyler headed out. It was a four-hour drive, and Keith only remembers the sounds of his wife and youngest son crying. They were met at the hospital by someone from ADC, who suggested Neil might have merely fallen and hit his head. The family was frisked, wand-ed and then let into Neil’s room where he lay shackled to the bed. One half of his scalp was cut open and stapled back up again; his eyes were closed; tubes snaked into his arms, nose and mouth. Two Kingman corrections officers were in the room. When Tammy reached for Neil, the officers said, “You can’t touch him!” There were only two chairs in the room, but the guards occupied them, so the family was left to stand. Close to Neil, but hardly close enough. “The next day we were able to hold his hand,” Tyler says. “He was unresponsive and chained to a bed. There was really no chance of him getting up and walking out.”

Neil never regained consciousness. When staffers tested for brain activity, they found none. His skin was “bitter cold,” Tyler says. Three days after the beating, Keith and Tammy arranged for his organs to be donated and they let Neil go.

From the medical examiner’s autopsy report: “Depressed left temporal bone fracture.” Neil’s cranial bone – behind the ear and at the base of his skull – was broken or crushed inward, a “depression” of the bone toward the brain. “Large left epidural hematoma.” Neil’s veins or arteries were damaged by the blows – blood had pooled into the space between the skull and the dural membrane. Neil’s brain was “markedly swollen” and had begun to push down into his brain stem. Bruise on left upper eyelid. Bruise at the base of the spine between the buttocks. Some blood present in his anus, but tears were not clearly identified. It’s unknown if Neil was also sexually assaulted that evening.

A year earlier, riots destroyed half the prison, causing nearly $2 million in damages. A state report found the facility had fostered a “culture of disorganization, disengagement and disregard.” Photo credit: AZ Dept. of Corrections

The months following Neil’s murder, there was a spike in applications to transfer out of Kingman. In February, another inmate was beaten with locks in socks – he, too, had to be transported to a level-one trauma center. “I find that really weird that someone was just murdered in your prison, you should be on maximum high alert, but weeks later my son has an open skull fracture bleeding out in the showers,” his mother says. (Chris says he was likely “a PC case,” a kid trying to run from a drug debt in another facility.) After the attack, the chaplain called to say that her son was in the ICU. He couldn’t tell her anything else, but “he wanted to know if I wanted him to pray with me.”

Then, on July 1st, five and a half months after Neil’s death, the Cerbat dorm erupted. The monsoon season had just begun, creating uncomfortably damp heat, huge dust storms and sudden, ferocious rainfall. It was so hot inside Kingman, even the cold-water taps were running warm.

An African-American inmate who had stolen cellphones and drugs from the Mexican nationals was about to be released back into the general population. Late that afternoon, inmates began to group by race in the yard, a sure sign of trouble. An ADC report later found that line officers either had so little training or were so green that they ignored this ominous sign. MTC had failed to conduct crucial staff trainings or had condensed what training it did offer, setting its employees up for failure. MTC staff have a very limited understanding of “prison politics,” “prison culture” and “yard dynamics,” the report found. (Of special note: A training course on nonviolent crisis intervention is seen as so critical by ADC that 16 hours are devoted to it; MTC reduced that training to 90 minutes.)

When the inmate was released to the yard, he was immediately set upon. Officers rushed in to escort him away, and a group of black inmates followed them to the shift supervisor’s office. There, the inmates begged the supervisor not to release the thief because every black inmate would be in danger. “This is my fucking yard,” the sergeant replied. “I’ll run it the way I want to.” Then he shut the door to his office. The inmates began pounding on the other officers, who quickly retreated. (One had hid in the ceiling tiles.) Left to their own devices, the inmates cut loose, smashing windows in the dorms and the medical unit, before hostilities ceased at 9:30 that night.

The next day, an even bigger and more damaging riot erupted next door in Hualapai. John Kemp, a 30-year-old guard known for his “super-cop attitude,” squared off with an inmate who had just returned from Ramadan prayers. The inmate had stopped to chat with another prisoner. Kemp ordered him back to his pod. According to the report, when the inmate threatened to “kick [his] ass,” Kemp pepper-sprayed him, emptying his canister and soaking the inmate so completely he turned carrot-colored. When another officer rushed in to cuff the inmate, he couldn’t get hold of him – the man was too slippery with spray.

Nearby inmates began banging their fists on the windows of their pod and smashing at the glass with padlocks. As the windows began to shatter, officers were given the order to evacuate the area. The 21 members of MTC’s Tactical Support Unit were sent in. The inmates, who had covered their faces, launched a fusillade of padlocks, broom handles and unidentified liquids. As officers struggled to subdue and cuff the inmate, he yelled to his fellow prisoners, “Look at what these motherfuckers did to me! Kill them all!”

“I was a firm believer in ‘If you do something wrong, you do the time,” says Neil’s mother. “Now it’s ‘If you do something wrong, do everything you possibly can to get out of it.”

All hell broke loose, pod to pod, then dorm to dorm, as inmates coordinated on cellphones, setting off a cacophony of shrieking alarms. As inmates broke out of their pods, they went straight for the security cameras. One by one, the dorms went dark – the only way the cops could tell what was going on was to enter inside.

Ceiling tiles were ripped down, porcelain toilets smashed, sinks pulled out of the walls, file cabinets and desks tipped over, contents scattered, mirrors and glass shattered. “It was scary as fuck,” Chris says. “I’m in charge of all these white dudes. They’re all looking at me, saying, ‘What do we do next?’ And I’m fucking 23. I’m like, ‘I don’t know. Go fucking wreck some shit, guys.’ ”

The Mohave County sheriff was called in to provide perimeter security. Deputies arrived and encircled the prison. ADC sent 96 members of its special tactical-support unit, the officers pouring in from facilities around the state, dressed in military fatigues and heavily armed. They carried shotguns with live ammunition, batons, sting-ball grenades, tear gas, and flash bangs, which are basically “blank” military grenades emitting a wave of heat, light and sound to cause temporary blindness and deafness.

The crackdown was as prolonged, adrenaline-fueled and chaotic as the uprising itself, but before it was completed, a third riot erupted in Hualapai on July 4th. This one was started by inmates who hadn’t made a peep up until then – they’d been without food or contact with their loved ones, and they were agitated by the heat and disorder. When food finally arrived, it was bologna sandwiches in paper sacks that had been left out in the sun, so the sandwiches were hot and soggy, inmates reported. After they refused to eat, the sandwiches were wheeled out and then wheeled back in again. Inmates began to cover their faces and the windows of their pods, and block the doors with mattresses. (“The only reason they went off is because we told them if they didn’t go off we were gonna fuck them up,” Chris says.)

The warden, who had met with the heads of each race and promised to get the food situation straightened out, now nodded to the tactical units gathered at the entrance. The inmates heard the order: “Flash ’em, bang ’em, roll ’em.”

Officers broke the glass out of the door and tossed in canisters of tear gas, hornet grenades and flash bangs. Inmates scattered to the back of the pod for cover. Screaming that they couldn’t breathe, they began to break the glass in the barred windows leading outside. “As soon as an inmate’s head popped up at the window for air, they would hit him with billy clubs or shoot him with rubber bullets,” one inmate says. They thought they would be released at any minute, but officers threw in more canisters of gas. The inmates began to think they would die inside that pod.

When the tactical-team members finally barged in to extract the inmates, they beat and kicked them. A kid lying cuffed on the floor was told to get up. When he didn’t respond, an officer kicked him in the head and shot him twice. Another inmate shouted, “He can’t speak English!” The officer shot him four more times. “Do you speak English now, motherfucker?” he yelled.

Some inmates were left lying facedown and handcuffed in the yard for up to eight hours without water. Some fainted in the heat; some had to piss themselves. A group of about 200 inmates were moved into the cafeteria, where they had to shit and pee into a trash can. The heat and stench got so nauseating that the guards eventually broke the windows so the prisoners could get some fresh air.

When it was all over, four out of the five units in Hualapai were completely destroyed, topping $1.9 million in damage, and more than 1,000 inmates had to be shipped by bus to county jails and prisons around the state. They arrived in jumpsuits stiff and crusted with dirt, pepper spray, tear gas and piss. Tragically, 11 days after the riots, Kemp, that 30-year-old guard at its center, committed suicide.

No one has ever been arrested for Neil’s murder. His family has never received a call from MTC or ADC. No explanation, no apology, not even a note of condolence. Keith and Tammy did hear from a mother whose son was killed in another Arizona prison. “I’ve been crying since last night, and my eyes are swollen and burning,” she wrote. “You will need an attorney if you hope to get any answers! You will not get it on your own or from the prison!”

Keith and Tammy believe their son was clean when they saw him around Christmas, only weeks before he was murdered. When they arrived at the visiting room, they didn’t even recognize Neil at first. He looked so healthy. He’d begun working out in the yard, and the grasshopper was now solid, muscular, a real “stud muffin,” as Tammy puts it. He spent the visit outlining his plans for the future – hiking the Grand Canyon again with his dad, taking care of his young child, counseling other drug addicts. Late in the visit, he took his younger brother outside where there’s a small caged-in area for visitors and inmates to smoke or sit under the sky. “He looked so good,” Tyler says. “He was like, ‘Are you doing good in school, are you doing good, nobody’s bothering you?’ He took time to, like, make sure that I was OK.”

After Neil’s death, their world caved in. “There was a huge downhill slope,” Tyler says. “Actually, it wasn’t a downhill slope, it was like a cliff. Our whole family was messed up.” Tyler had to be checked into a psychiatric hospital for a time because of a deep depression. Keith began pouring his energy into a hunt for information. He wrote letters to and called ADC, Kingman, MTC, the coroner’s office, the Mohave County sheriff’s office. He set up a website to honor Neil and ask for investigative tips. One day while sitting at his desk at work, Keith felt a sharp, heavy kick in his chest and drove himself to the hospital – his heart was fine, but his blood pressure was so high he was kept overnight.

Tammy got chewed up by anger. “I was a firm believer in the system,” she says. “If you do something wrong, you do the time. Now it’s ‘If you do something wrong, you do everything you possibly can to get out of it because you’re going to be killed while you’re in prison.’ ” She wanted to know the truth – until she didn’t. Shortly after her son’s funeral, Tammy, her voice rough and flurried and broken, asked Trinidade what happened. He mentioned an alleged drug debt. Tammy cut him off. “I don’t want to hear that. Please. Don’t.”

Chris believes Neil’s murder was a beating that went too far. “I heard the two dudes that did it are not going to have a very good prison career,” he says. “And the dude that made the call to have the two beat him up? That dude is probably not gonna survive very long. Because that’s a bad call.” Dead men can’t settle their debts.

After the riots, a “scathing” investigation, in the words of Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, found a “culture of disorganization, disengagement and disregard” for “fundamental inmate management and security principles.” That August, Ducey canceled MTC’s contract. All it took was one escape, two dead retirees, a flood of drugs, who knows how many inmates bullied, cowed, strung out, injured over the years, a murdered 23-year-old shoplifter, and three days of rioting that destroyed one half of the prison and led to an officer’s suicide. Two months later, Ducey and ADC awarded the contract to another for-profit prison company, GEO. Shortly afterward, the Arizona Republic reported that GEO had contributed $2,000 to Ducey’s campaign for governor and $50,000 to Conservative Leadership for Arizona, an independent group that supported Ducey. But that’s just how you run a business.

Then the state set out to punish the rioters. In Hualapai, the inmates destroyed the cameras early on, so it was difficult to identify any inmate with certainty. But at Cerbat, where the first riot broke out, the cameras continued to roll and, unlike after the murder of Neil Early, MTC staff didn’t tape over the footage, and ADC didn’t fail to collect the evidence. Eleven inmates were indicted on felony charges. They had broken stuff. They would be held accountable.

In This Article: prison


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