Anatomy of a Prison Murder

Guards Watch as a Prisoner Kills His Cellmate

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.

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