Stories

Anatomy of a Prison Murder

Guards Watch as a Prisoner Kills His Cellmate

The Village Voice | April 3, 2001

IN THE SUMMER OF 1999, New York’s prison officials opened a sleek new penitentiary on the outskirts of Malone, a tiny town 15 miles south of the Canadian border. By then, New York already had 69 prisons, but its 70th stood out from the others. This high-tech, $130 million facility was the first prison in the state built specifically for inmates who broke prison rules elsewhere. Attacking a guard or getting caught with a weapon could get a prisoner sent here, and so could lesser offenses, like smoking marijuana.

This prison was to be the ultimate management tool—a place to send the most disruptive inmates so that the rest of the state’s prisons could run more smoothly. Officials gave it an innocuous name, Upstate Correctional Facility, but punishment here would take on an unusually harsh form. Just as in solitary confinement, the men would stay in their cells for 23 hours a day, never seeing a classroom or a mess hall. At Upstate, though, officials added a harrowing twist: Each prisoner would be locked in a tiny cell all day with somebody else.

Upstate prison was supposed to be not only cost efficient, but safe. Its architecture and hardware resemble those of “supermax” prisons across the country, which were designed to contain the most violent inmates. Upstate’s state-of-the-art equipment includes prefab cells with showers in the corner, food slots in the door, and tiny outdoor cages attached to the back. The aim is to minimize contact between guards and inmates, thereby shrinking the chance of a scuffle. Now prisoners can eat, wash, and exercise without a guard having to touch them.

Despite its hefty price tag, 800-plus surveillance cameras, and 366-person security staff, one prisoner has already exited in an ambulance, never to return. Prison murders are more rare than one might imagine; there were five homicides inside all of New York’s state prisons between 1996 and 1999. But early on the morning of May 12, 2000, less than 10 months after Upstate opened, Donnell Brunson killed his bunkmate in cell B-29 of 10 Building. Not only were three surveillance cameras pointed at the cell door, but there were also three guards standing outside.

How did it happen? The clues lie hidden in a stack of paper and tapes: surveillance footage, internal prison memos, audiotapes from a disciplinary hearing, depositions taken by the state police, and crime scene photos. Pieced together, these bits of information tell a story that prison officials would rather you did not read. In fact, the state’s prison spokesperson did not return several calls asking about this incident. Peeling back the layers of official secrecy, this murder tale reveals the inner workings of New York’s toughest prison. Along the way, it also raises serious questions about the state’s policy of confining two problem prisoners together for 23 hours a day.


NEITHER OF THE MEN LIVING IN CELL B-29 seemed like a very desirable roommate. Donnell Brunson, 35, was in the middle of a nine-year prison sentence for trying to rob a woman with a .22-caliber revolver. A Brooklyn native and high school dropout, Brunson had already done three stints in state prison for similar crimes.

Brunson has shoulder-length dreadlocks, a Playboy bunny tattoo on his right biceps, and the torso of someone who appears to have spent many hours lifting weights in the prison yard. Brunson is five feet six inches tall and 165 pounds.

While in prison, Brunson often got into trouble for having “dirty urine,” or testing positive for drugs. Such transgressions usually earned him a few weeks or months in “the box,” prison lingo for being locked in a cell 23 hours a day. While imprisoned in Attica in the fall of 1999, Brunson again tested positive for marijuana. It was his fifth drug charge in 25 months. Prison officials sentenced Brunson to a year in the box and shipped him to Upstate.

Brunson had a few different cellmates over the next months, and in February 2000, he ended up with Jose Quintana, a 42-year-old former taxi driver from Brooklyn. Quintana had been born in Panama, and his education ended with eighth grade. He was about the same size as Brunson—five feet eight inches and 145 pounds—and had “Madre” tattooed on one arm.

In 1984, Quintana was punching and choking his girlfriend when a man tried to intervene. Quintana stabbed him twice and killed him. At the time, Quintana already had a lengthy rap sheet, including a pending case for selling cocaine. A judge sentenced him to 18 years to life.

Quintana continued his violent ways after he was locked up. His discipline record shows that he repeatedly assaulted other inmates and was caught with weapons. (His prison file also includes an earlier incident in which he allegedly stabbed a fellow inmate in a county jail.) In April 1999, Quintana got in trouble at a prison in Marcy for fighting with other inmates. He was sentenced to 21 months in the box. Eventually, he too was sent to Upstate.

How Quintana ended up in the same cell with Brunson is unclear. According to a report released last December by the state’s prison commissioner, the Department of Correctional Services has an “extensive screening process” that “prohibits the double celling of inmates . . . who are highly assaultive, those exhibiting histories of aggressive homosexual behavior, and those with histories of extreme violence.”

Though Quintana was a murderer with a history of attacking other prisoners, he was locked in a cell with Brunson. There was trouble from the start.


UPSTATE’S RECTANGULAR CELLS ARE LARGER than others in the state system, but they are still only 14 by eight and a half feet, or about the size of a large walk-in closet. Standing in the middle of a cell, a prisoner can touch both the bunk bed and the wall. There are no bars on the doors here. Instead, the cells each have a two-inch-thick steel door with a small Plexiglas window.

The prisoners stay in their cells all day, and the most exciting moments are when the shower turns on, or a tray of food arrives through a slot in the front door, or the back door opens for “recreation time.” Here, recreation means a chance to spend an hour in a cage called a “rec pen,” which is about half the size of the cell and just large enough to do jumping jacks or pull-ups. A guard in a central booth, standing before rows of video monitors and switches, controls both the back and front doors.

Living in such close quarters with another person can quickly become unbearable. Prisoners shower, defecate, and urinate a few feet away from each other. There is no way to escape a cellmate’s odors—the smell of his sweat, his breath, his feces. And his personal habits—whether he smokes or snores or talks incessantly—can be intolerable. After a few weeks or months, some men feel like they are living in their bunkmate’s skin.

Across New York State, there are close to 4500 prisoners living in 23-hour lockdown on any given day. More than 3000 of these prisoners have a cellmate. Upstate has 1500 beds, and officials recently added 100 two-bed cells to nine other prisons across the state. In January 2000, inside one of these cells at Orleans Correctional Facility, a prisoner fatally choked his bunkmate with a headphone cord.

“It’s a setup for problems,” says Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist who teaches at Harvard Medical School and is a leading authority on the psychological impact of punitive segregation. “Two people in close quarters with each other—they can easily become paranoid of each other and rageful to the point of homicide.”

At first, Brunson did not recognize his new bunky, as prisoners calls their bunkmates. The last time Brunson had seen him, Quintana’s hair hung to his waist. After chatting, the two men realized they had crossed paths before, at Auburn prison. “I knew him as a dude who was a pretty dangerous guy,” Brunson says in a telephone interview from prison. “He said he was in the box for stabbing someone. And since he’d been in the box, he told me he got into a fight with his bunky and that’s why he lost some of his hair.”

From the beginning, Brunson says, he did not like his roommate. “Usually a prisoner would give the other one privacy, but he wasn’t like that,” says Brunson. Guards turn on the showers at the same time they open the back door, so one prisoner can exercise outside while the other bathes. Instead, Brunson says, Quintana “would watch and he would make comments about my body, my legs, my butt.

“He would rub against me because the cells are but so big,” Brunson continues. “A few times, he touched me while I was sleeping—on my leg, on my butt—like he was trying to wake me up for something. . . . I used to tell him to stop touching me. To wake me, just call me. He used to masturbate in the open during the day.”

It is impossible to determine whether Brunson’s tale of his cellmate’s sexual advances is true. Brunson did write a letter to a sergeant requesting a new bunky, according to his testimony at a subsequent disciplinary hearing. Two other prisoners also testified about Brunson’s troubles with Quintana. But, Brunson says, he was too ashamed to reveal the reason for his discomfort, fearing it would taint his reputation inside the prison system. To cope, Brunson says, he began showering in his underwear and staying awake all night.

In early May, Brunson learned he would soon be transferred from Upstate prison, and that’s when tensions inside cell B-29 became unbearable. On May 11, Brunson says, Quintana “told me he’d been down 16 years without a woman,” and that he was “tired of being the nice guy.” That night, Brunson says Quintana announced “he’s going to get what he wants—or he’s going to take it—when the lights go out.”


AT 2:45 A.M. ON MAY 12, Brunson was reading John Grisham’s The Rainmaker in his top bunk by a small fluorescent light. The cell’s main light was already off, and Quintana got up to switch off the reading light. His gesture enraged Brunson, and the two started arguing about whether the light should be on or off. Brunson climbed down from his bunk and staked out a corner, partly protected by the shower and the bed. Quintana sat on his lower bunk, pulled on his green inmate pants, slipped on his sneakers, and pulled off his shirt.

The two men squared off, and their voices carried down the corridor.

“Set it off!”

“Whatcha going to do? Huh?”

“C’mon, c’mon!”

There were no cameras inside the cell, but microphones recorded the men’s shouts, and three cameras in the hallway show the occasional body flashing by the cell window. The men’s voices are sometimes clear, sometimes muffled. It is difficult to determine who is yelling what, and in the beginning, there were no witnesses, so the only version of this fight is Brunson’s.

“He was grabbing me by my hair . . . pulling my hair out and swinging me around,” Brunson says. “He was able to push me into the shower, and I fell on my back, and he was able to get on top of me. . . . He was hitting me and kicking me. He was suffocating me. . . . I felt this guy is going to either render me unconscious or he is going to kill me. There was no one to help me. I was able to grab him and kinda pull him all the way in with me and then turn over and . . . get out of the shower.”

Loud banging, the sound of a toilet flushing, and more shouting filled the prison’s hallway.

“Say uncle!”

“You pulled my hair, right?”

“Call the po-leece, motherfucker!”

Brunson claims he did not want to fight Quintana, and so he tried to get the men in the cell next door to call the police, the prisoners’ term for the guards. But the battle continued. “When he got out of the shower, he started fighting again and he grabbed my hair, and I’m telling him, ‘That’s enough, that’s it,’ “ Brunson says. “He wouldn’t stop, and after a while, I felt like my life was in danger. And I just lost it. My mind just snapped. You’re fighting for your life. . . . And I know I’m fighting with a murderer that killed before. . . . So I just started going crazy. I went wild.”


AT 3:13 A.M., more than 20 minutes after the argument began, Timothy Stampfler, a correction officer, headed down the hallway toward cell B-29. By now, the commotion had awakened other prisoners on the floor. They looked out their windows and yelled to the guard, “Down there!”

Through the window of cell B-29, Stampfler saw Quintana curled up on the lower bunk. Holding onto the top bunk, Brunson was kicking his cellmate in the head with his right foot. Quintana tried to block Brunson’s blows by shielding his face with his hand. By now, there was plenty of evidence to show how vicious this 26-minute fight had already become. Quintana’s face was bruised and bloody. Several of Brunson’s dreadlocks, which his cellmate had yanked out earlier, lay on the floor and in the toilet. Blood streaked the walls, sheets, and cell window.

“Hey, what are you doing?” Stampfler shouted through the window. “Get the fuck away from him!”

Brunson looked up at guard, and the two began arguing. “You need assistance!” Brunson yelled to the guard.

“That’s right,” the guard responded, “but leave him alone!”

“Call for assistance, man, before I kill him!” Brunson shouted.

Stampfler told the guard in the control booth, who is known as the “console officer,” to notify the sergeant. Prison policy required that a supervisor be present before guards can enter a cell where two inmates are brawling. Meanwhile, inside cell B-29, Brunson continued to punch Quintana in the face and smash his head against the wall.

“Didn’t I tell you to shut up?” Brunson shouted. “Answer me, bitchass motherfucker!”

By now, the console officer had opened the cell’s back door.

“I need you in the rec pen,” Stampfler shouted through the window.

“He needs a fucking nurse,” Brunson responded.

“That’s right, and we need you in the rec pen.”

Instead of following orders—instead of going to the back of the cell and being locked into the caged balcony—Brunson kept kicking and punching his bunky. Over and over, Quintana’s head smacked against the cell wall, making an ominous thumping noise.

Later, in a telephone interview, Brunson explained he did not obey orders because he was afraid that, if he got up, Quintana would attack him and he would have to defend himself again. “I know the officers are not going to come into the cell to break it up,” Brunson said. “It’s like a known thing in the jail that officers don’t come in there until it’s over.”

At 3:17 a.m., four minutes after Stampfler arrived, another officer showed up. The guards continued to shout through the Plexiglas window.

“I need you in the rec pen.”

“Fuck you, man!” Brunson responded.

One minute later, a third guard walked down the hall and peered inside cell B-29. The three officers took turns watching the fight through the window. Inside, Brunson continued to kick and punch his cellmate.

“I want to talk to someone in charge!” Brunson shouted.

“We need the sergeant pretty soon,” one of the guards said. “Otherwise he’s going to kill this guy.”

Only two sergeants work the midnight shift, so the wait for a supervisor continued. At 3:18 a.m., one officer walked away. Another guard followed. One minute later, the third officer strolled away from the window. Meanwhile, the fight went on, and the eerie sound of Quintana’s head smacking against the cell wall continued to echo down the hall.

“Say uncle, motherfucker!” Brunson shouted. “Sorryass piece of shit!”

Later, Stampfler would explain his version of events at a disciplinary hearing held for Brunson. Quintana “was putting up no fight whatsoever,” Stampfler said. “When I ran back a little ways from the window, I partially did that because I felt Brunson was using me as a spectator and was beating him even harder because I was there.”

At 3:20 a.m., one officer returned, walking down the hall with his hands shoved in his pockets. He stopped at cell B-29 and peered inside. Another guard soon joined him.

“The fucking reject is pounding on him,” one officer said to the other.

The third guard came back, too, and the men discussed what to do. Their words are difficult to decipher, but the men appear agitated. “I know,” one guard said to another, “but we can’t go fucking in there.”

At 3:21 a.m., a fourth guard showed up. Even if they had wanted to, the officers could not have opened the cell. They do not carry keys. Only the console officer in the the central control booth is able to unlock the door.

At 3:22 a.m., Brunson finally obeyed their orders and stopped beating his bunky. Blood covered Brunson’s arms and hands, but his injuries were relatively minor: several missing dreadlocks and a cut on his right pinky. Brunson headed to the back of the cell and stepped into the rec pen. From there, he continued hollering, and his voice carried through two doors.

“He needs some help!” Brunson shouted. “He needs some help!”

Nine minutes had passed since Stampfler first arrived at the cell door, and still it remained shut. At his disciplinary hearing, Brunson got a chance to quiz Stampfler about the guards’ policy on entering cells where two inmates are fighting.

“That’s been a little up in the air,” Stampfler said. “But from what we were told when I first got there, we had to have a supervisor on duty. . . . Unless the console officer. . . agrees with me and says, ‘Yes, open the cell door,’ I still can’t get it open. If we had had maybe a few more officers there, it could’ve been a judgment call. Maybe we could’ve went in. But since there were no officers there at the time, all we could do is stand there and just watch.”


AT 3:24 A.M., Sergeant Gerald Blow arrived with three guards. As he walked up, the officers stepped away from the cell window so their boss could look inside. The sergeant saw Quintana’s bruised and bloody body lying on the bottom bunk.

Blow spun around. “Who actually observed the fight?” he asked his underlings.

“He needs some help,” Brunson hollered from the rec pen. “You better hurry up and get him!”

“Keep quiet!” Blow shouted.

An officer yelled to Quintana. “Put your hands through the hatch!” At Upstate, guards do not let prisoners leave their cells until they shove their hands through the slot in the door so they can be cuffed.

“He needs assistance, yo!” Brunson yelled.

“Put your hands through the hatch, and you’ll get assistance!” a guard shouted to Quintana.

By now, Quintana was sitting on his bed, dazed and unresponsive.

“Quintana, Quintana, you’ve got to come to the door, man!” the sergeant shouted.

“He can’t get up!” Brunson hollered. “He needs help!”

At 3:29 a.m., five minutes after the sergeant arrived, the cell door was still shut and the officers were still waiting for Quintana to put his hands through the slot in the door.

“What are y’all waiting for, man?” Brunson yelled. “He can’t get up! He can’t get up! He fell and hit his head! He can’t get up!”

A nurse arrived, and two minutes later another nurse showed up with an officer carrying a stretcher. Five guards slipped on what looked like hospital scrubs over their uniforms, and they pulled on latex gloves. Their actions appeared to carry little sense of urgency. While they helped each other tie the backs of their protective gowns, someone made a comment that cannot be heard clearly on the videotape. Whatever his words were, they got the guards laughing.

At 3:33 a.m., 20 minutes after a guard first witnessed Brunson beating his bunky, the door to cell B-29 finally opened. Five men entered the cell, then exited carrying Quintana on a stretcher. By now, his eyes were swollen shut and blood covered his face, arms, neck, and chest.

Quintana left the prison in the back of an ambulance around 4 a.m. Thirty-five hours later, a doctor pronounced him dead. His death certificate states that he died of cerebral contusions caused by blunt force trauma.


THE MURDER INSIDE CELL B-29 received little public attention. At the time, there were a few stories in local papers, and two articles appeared recently in The Amsterdam News. Inside the prison, Quintana’s killing was logged as “Unusual Incident #000058.” It sparked a flurry of paperwork: an unusual incident report, a misbehavior report, guards’ memos about what they witnessed. None of the officers faced disciplinary charges.

Brunson was arraigned on a charge of first-degree manslaughter. His mother, a supervisor for the postal service, hired Harlem lawyer Earl Rawlins. For months, Rawlins has been negotiating with the Franklin County district attorney about a possible plea bargain for Brunson. Meanwhile, five days after his death, Quintana was buried in Comstock at Washington Correctional Cemetery.

Last December, Glenn S. Goord, commissioner of the state Department of Correctional Services, released a “policy paper” in which he declared that Upstate prison has been a success, that there have been fewer incidents of violence in the state prison system since it opened. The report cited system-wide statistics showing incidents of both inmate-on-staff assaults and inmate-on-inmate assaults have plunged. The report does not mention the murder in cell B-29.

Brunson is no longer at Upstate. Shortly after Quintana’s death, there was a five-hour administrative hearing held to determine Brunson’s fate within the prison system. A hearing officer found him guilty of four charges, including assault on an inmate and refusing a direct order. His punishment: 12 more years in the box. Now Brunson is at Clinton prison in nearby Dannemora, locked in his cell for 23 hours a day, this time without a bunky.

 

 

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