Anatomy of a Prison Murder

Guards Watch as a Prisoner Kills His Cellmate

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."

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