Members of a special operations team at the federal prison complex in Florence fired pepper spray, plastic bullets and pepper balls at their unarmed, administrative colleagues during a training exercise in 2019, according to a federal lawsuit filed Friday.
The incident at the complex in Fremont County — home to the Supermax prison — was one of two “inappropriate and dangerous” training episodes that prompted the Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General to recommend the Federal Bureau of Prisons suspend some of its special operations training until better safeguards could be put in place, according to a June 2020 memo released by the office, which provides oversight to federal agencies.
“We believe that staff members at the Bureau of Prisons abused their coworkers in a way that undermines, or should undermine, the faith of the public in the ability to do their jobs,” said attorney Ed Aro, who is representing four current and former Bureau of Prison employees who say they were injured and traumatized by the training.
Scott Taylor, a spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons, declined to comment on the lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado and seeks unspecified damages.
The complex in Fremont county includes ADX Florence — the so-called Supermax prison that houses 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, among other convicted terrorists — as well as two other high- and medium-security prisons.
The July 20, 2019, incident at the complex took place during a mock scenario training for the special operations response team, known as SORT, according to the lawsuit. The SORT team functions similarly to a SWAT team, and members were required to go through training on weapons proficiency, building entry and munitions, according to the memo from the Office of Inspector General.
On this day, the SORT team conducted an unannounced mock scenario training exercise that simulated a hostage situation in an administrative building at the prison complex.
Then-Bureau of Prison employees Jose Arroyo, Heather Boehm, Samuel Cordo and Amber Miller were all working in a business office when the scenario began. Realizing a training scenario was underway, the four locked themselves into a small cashier’s cage with three others in the office, according to the lawsuit.
“This is because BOP policy for responding to hostage situations requires employees to establish a safe haven, if possible, and to remain in the safe haven until an ‘all clear’ announcement,” the lawsuit reads.
The group went into the small cashier’s cage around 8:30 a.m., according to the lawsuit. One woman was in the first trimester of a high-risk pregnancy, and another was on crutches. They hid for the next two hours. The employees barricaded the door with filing cabinets, and turned off the lights when they heard movement outside their room just before 11 a.m., according to the lawsuit.
Several SORT team members came into the office and told the employees in the cashier’s cage to come out, but the employees refused, because leaving a safe spot without an “all clear” or confirmation that the training scenario was over would be a violation of policy, the lawsuit says. The employees were concerned that the officers may have been “compromised” in the training scenario and intended to take them “hostage.”
The SORT team members became “increasingly angry” when the group refused to emerge, according to the lawsuit, and attempted to break down the door to the cashier’s room while shouting and cursing at the employees to come out. They used a crowbar to try to pry open the cage and then fired what appeared to be a pepper ball into the room through a mail slot, the lawsuit says.
Those inside the room “grew more and more afraid,” according to the lawsuit. One woman shouted at the officers to stop and said they were “out of role,” a phrase that was supposed to indicate they were no longer participating in the training scenario. Another employee started sobbing, the lawsuit says.
As the standoff continued, the SORT members fired pepper spray into the room through the mail slot opening. At least one SORT member also fired 9 mm Simunition rounds — essentially plastic bullets — into the room, according to the lawsuit.
As the small cashier’s cage filled with pepper spray, the employees agreed to come out, unlocked the door and removed the barricade. The SORT team rushed in, pointed guns at them and yelled for them to get on the ground. One officer punched an employee in the face, another woman was pushed off her crutches, according to the lawsuit. One SORT member fired a Simunition round into another employee’s chest, and the plastic bullet “burned through (his) shirt and left a bruise on his chest,” the lawsuit says.
“In an attempt to snap the Defendants out of their rage, the plaintiffs continuously shouted, ‘Out of role!’” the lawsuit reads.
After a few moments, the officers left and the rest of the employees came out. Two were taken to hospitals in ambulances.
One SORT member told the employees that they “should have just opened the door,” according to the lawsuit.
The Office of Inspector General later found that the Bureau of Prisons did not have adequate guidelines or oversight for mock exercises, and recommended that all SORT members and their trainers “receive remedial training on SORT policy and use of force” during training exercises. The agency also instructed the bureau to develop more robust policies and oversight for mock scenarios.
The Office of Inspector General also investigated a separate 2019 training incident at an unspecified prison in which a SORT team deployed two “flash-bang” munitions during a mock scenario, according to the report. One flash-bang hit a staff member who was role-playing and exploded, causing “significant injury” that required surgery and ongoing treatment.
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