A Killing in Exile

Essay by Anthony Brown

Anthony Brown writes from Spring Creek Correctional Facility in Seward, Alaska where he is serving a life sentence.

Comments or information, write the author at:

POB 244154
Anchorage, AK 99524-4154

Immediately following Statehood, the State of Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Division of Corrections initiated a contact with the United States Department of Justice to house long-term felons and problematic prisoners in federal prisons located throughout what was called the "Lower-48." By 1988, nearly 200 Alaskan prisoners were housed under that contract. Aside from the basic benefit of temporarily separating those who commit crimes from the rest of society, the consequences of incarceration, particularly long-term incarceration under the conditions extant in both the federal and state prison systems, are nearly all negative. As will be demonstrated, those consequences are compounded or enhanced by the transport of those prisoners to facilities far from their families and ties to the outside world. In 1977, I became one of them. Shipped into exile at the United States Penitentiary in Lompoc, California, I joined 40-60 other Alaskans in that pit. In 1981 or ’82, as an Alaskan and one of two prisoners sharing duty as emergency room technicians with staff Physicians Assistants, I walked the sand of that arena and stand as witness to what follows.

The reality of the exiled Alaskan is dreary, lonely and sometimes terrifying. Unlike in-state incarceration, exile means banishment to facilities thousand of miles from homes, villages and towns and isolation from parents, siblings, spouses, children and friends, as well as from churches and other community groups. These bonds and relationships become strained and frequently severed--denying prisoners the emotion, psychological or spiritual support that are inherent. In response to the hostile environment, isolation, and the deterioration of outside relationships, contrived bonds are developed as compensation. These may be affiliations based on race, place of origin, or common interests, such as drugs, gambling or even religion. When our homeboy, Rick Buza, landed on the Lompoc yard, he hit the ground running, chasing the same drugs and exhibiting the same addictive behaviors that had earned him a prison sentence. Unfortunately, as streetwise as he may have been, he was ignorant of penitentiary customs, taboos and expectations.

Although the contrived relationships formed in the prison environment may serve as poor substitute for healthy family and social bonds, they do offer a most valued commodity: the protection of numbers. Not unlike the food chain of the African Savannah, where isolated animals, culled from the herd by age or infirmity become food for lions, prisoners seen to be without strong companions are quickly evaluated for weakness and vulnerability and if found susceptible are subject to predation. For Alfred K., a young Alaskan native man who was physically weak, small-framed, smooth-faced, and without companions to stand with him, nor family, elders, or tribal council to guide him, assist him, or address problems in his custody with his captors, such a fate was almost inescapable. Unable to find or take a place in the hierarchy of his new world, he had been preyed upon and "turned-out" early in his imprisonment. Possibly coaxed with protection from a fate he considered worse, or, most probably, raped and shamed into submission, he became a "punk," whose role was that of homosexual sex-toy and whore. However it happened, Alfred was dropped onto the yard at Lompoc with a "punk jacket" and quickly gravitated into that role with Young Buffalo, a young Native-American from the Midwest.

Versions of the conflict’s cause and the sequence of events vary to one degree or another, but several facts are consistent: Guards had caught Rick and Alfred passing a hypodermic syringe between them, and both were given disciplinary segregation as punishment. At the end of that segregation time they were released from the "hole," and Alfred began telling other prisoners that Rick had told on him. When Rick heard about the accusations, he confronted Alfred in an encounter that grew from repeated allegation and vehement denial to threats and aggressive gesturing, until Young Buffalo, seeing his "kid" in a rapidly escalating conflict, stepped in to support Alfred as was his obligation in their relationship. Young Buffalo’s involvement ended the immediate confrontation, but it was without satisfaction on any side.

That evening, Young Buffalo sought out one of Rick’s friends with two purposes in mind. The first was to have that friend act as an intermediary to pass on the warning: "Rick better stay away from Alfred or he’ll get his head cut off." And second, as a kind of courtesy, was to inform the other Alaskans of his obligation to Alfred and his willingness to act should their intervention in the situation not occur or prove futile. As a result, Rick was informed that he wasn’t in Alaska anymore, and the threat of death was serious and could be ignored only at his own risk. Rick apparently chose not to take the threat seriously, because around lunchtime the following day he again got into a full-blown argument with Alfred.
Late the same afternoon of the second argument, while Rick and other prisoners waited to end their work day near the closed garage-style doors of the Mechanical Services Building, Young Buffalo stepped up behind Rick and smashed an iron bar into his head. The blow tore his scalp to the bone, fractured his skull and knocked him to the floor, unconscious, on his back. The violent movement shocked the many waiting prisoners and caught the attention of numerous shop supervisors and guards in the Tool Room, various maintenance shops, and the offices of the Chief of Mechanical Services. Those in the immediate area quickly moved away from the threat and turned to watch.

Young Buffalo tossed the bar away and, for a long, full, seemingly endless minute, stood over Rick’s collapsed form, apparently thinking, deciding. A couple of times he looked up from Rick to those watching him, then back down to Rick. Time ticked away, but as the pool of blood grew beneath Rick’s head, not one person moved, spoke a word, or made a sound to break Young Buffalo’s contemplation. It was as if a spell had come over them all. Finally, saying nothing, he reached into his pocket, came out with a "shank" made from a razor blade and melted plastic from a toothbrush or comb, and, as calm as the day it happened, he bent at the waist and ran the blade rapidly across Rick’s neck from ear to ear. Blood gushed, and the pool beneath his head rapidly became a small lake as Rick’s life pumped from his throat. Young Buffalo straightened, tossed the weapon away, stepped back from the fallen body, and put his hands out before him waiting to be cuffed and led away.

I believe that was they day I actually met Rick Buza. I greeted his grinning, gashed, and bloody throat with open palms, attempting to stave off the pumping flow while the Physician’s Assistant who led our medical response crew that day quickly inspected one side of his neck, then the other, only to discover that both carotid arteries had been severed. In a bid doomed to fail, the P.A. tried to use bits of plastic tubing to temporarily shunt blood across the severed vessels, but was frustrated by the slippery, obscuring gore. When he finally rocked back on his heels, shaking his head in disappointment at his inability to bridge the flow, I watched the last beats of Rick’s heart in the rhythmic ebb and flow of its efforts to push blood across the gaping wound to his brain, and saw the welling die to draining as gravity took control of the flow.

In the days that followed, Rick’s friends and other Alaskan prisoners discussed what possible actions should be taken on their part. Some thought retaliation against Yong Buffalo, Alfred, or even their friends was necessary. Others saw that Young Buffalo had sought intervention, that Rick’s disregard of the warning made it a personal dispute, and that their further involvement would be inappropriate. Others were just relieved that it had happened to someone else. The matter ended there.

I would like to say that Rick Buza’s death served some higher purpose, that he did not die for nothing. However, the truth of the matter is he died as the result of a needless conflict within contrived relationships between people with undeveloped or twisted characters whose bonds were rooted in ego and founded upon the fear, addiction, force and subjugation that existed in the vacuum of broken, lost or non-existent bonds and ties to family, friends and community. Beyond his closest relatives and those who now share nightmares of his killing, no one cares.

It is impossible to say for certain that Rick Buza would be alive today or that Alfred K. would not have been raped and humiliated had they not been where they were and if Alaskan authorities had not exiled them to that distant penitentiary. However, if Alaska’s penal system had been based upon "correction" or reformation, as is constitutionally mandated, rather than warehousing, retribution, and incapacitation these men may have been otherwise occupied with overcoming their addictions, developing praiseworthy attributes and qualities, establishing or rebuilding family and community ties, and making reparations for their crimes. In any case, regardless of how things were, could have been, or should have been, and no matter how serious or offensive the crimes that garnered their incarceration, neither man had been sentenced to violent death, nor to debasing rape and subjugation.

Rick and Alfred were tossed into the crucible that was the "policy of exile" because it was economically advantageous to the State and morally acceptable to its citizens. During the time of Rick’s killing Alaska was awash in the wealth of oil revenues but, rather than build facilities and develop processes to address the causes of criminal behavior in those it imprisoned, it continued to ship its prisoners outside the state. In 1988, as part of the settlement agreement in a civil suit over jail and prison conditions (Cleary, et al. v. Smith, et al., 3AN-81-5274 Civ.), the Spring Creek Correctional Center was constructed in Seward, Alaska, and exiled prisoners were finally returned to Alaska. Unfortunately, in keeping with the punitive tradition of American penal concepts, rather than seeking out and developing programs to confront the causal factors of crime, correcting and healing malformed and undeveloped characters, promoting reparations for victims, encouraging the successful reintegration of ex-offenders and nurturing of family ties, they chose to follow in the footsteps of other state and federal systems that are dismal failures. Alaska now shares their abysmal recidivism rate (currently 87% in Alaska), prison overcrowding and massive law enforcement and prison budgets.

In the winter of 1994–95 the policy of exile began anew, the direct consequence of that mean-spirited short-sightedness. Lawmakers are unwilling to expend revenues on new prison facilities or consider logical sentence reforms and have mandated imprisonment as punishment for a growing number of crimes or increased the terms of incarceration for existing crimes. Further, the Department of Corrections is unable or unwilling to develop programs that address the causes of criminal behavior and would assure lower recidivism rates through the successful reintegration of ex-prisoners into the community. Presently, between 200–300 prisoners are housed under contract to a privately operated prison in Arizona. The Department of Corrections has stated that requirements for contracted facilities outside the state will increase and that there are no plans to return these prisoners to Alaska (as stated in comments on "Newslink Alaska" by Frank Sauser, Director of Institutions, Alaska Dept. of Corrections). Even should new prisons be constructed, present overcrowding and projected prison population increases assure that continued banishment of prisoners is unavoidable for the foreseeable future.

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