Copper Area News has received some articles from a former corrections officer from Arizona State Prison. This retired officer spent 25 years with the Arizona Department of Corrections working all custody levels from juvenile detention units to Death Row. The author wishes to remain anonymous. He hopes to provide the readers with a view of what it is like working with inmates and what life is like behind prison walls.
The job of a corrections officer is not easy. The nature of the job, working with men or women behind bars can be stressful. Working in high custody units can add to the stress. The Arizona Department of Corrections has a high staff turnover rate. One in five staff members quit within the first couple of years of being hired or use the training and experience they receive to transfer to Sheriff departments or Federal corrections.
Maximum custody inmates are either there because they are doing long sentences, are convicted of violent crimes or they are problem inmates while in prison. Inmates on Death Row are under a sentence of death and have nothing to lose by acting out against staff or other inmates. Officers must always be on the alert to prevent these inmates from harming other inmates or staff. To understand the type of inmates that are housed on Death Row, I will provide you with a few of their stories, the crimes they committed and some of their prison life.
Robert Wayne Vickers was not an imposing figure to look at. He was thin, standing six feet one inch and weighing 148 pounds. If you did not know his history, you would find it hard to believe that he was considered one of the most dangerous inmates in the Arizona State Prison system. Although Vickers had gained a reputation for violence while in Arizona juvenile institutions, it was not a violent crime that brought him to prison. He was 19 years old when sentenced to 3 to 9 years for grand theft for a series of burglaries committed in Tempe, Arizona. He arrived at the prison in Florence in 1977. He would not see freedom again.
When Vickers arrived at Florence, it was a time of extraordinary violence. In 1977 there had been 23 stabbings and seven murders at the Florence prison. He was still a teenager and may have felt he needed to engage in assaultive behavior to keep inmates away from him. He assaulted some black inmates probably in an attempt to impress the white racist prison gang “Aryan Brotherhood”. In February of 1978, he stabbed Homer Burns with a shank (prison made weapon). He was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to 10 to 15 years. This set the stage for Vickers to earn his nickname and reputation.
Frank Ponciano was the 21-year-old cell mate of Robert Vickers. He was serving time for second degree murder. On Oct. 4, 1978, Ponciano failed to wake Vickers at lunch time and made the fatal mistake of drinking Vickers’ Kool- Aid. Vickers strangled Ponciano with a knotted bed sheet and stabbed him 10 times in the back and side with a home made weapon. Vickers then used a toothbrush with a sharpened handle to carve the word “Bonzai” into the back of the dead Ponciano. Bonzai was the misspelling of Banzai, the Japanese patriotic cheer or battle cry. From then on, the name Bonzai or Bonzai Bob would be used by inmates and staff when referring to Robert Vickers. After this, Vickers would sign his correspondence “Bonzai Bob” with a miniature swastika dotting the letter i.
Vickers was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death. He was the only inmate on Death Row for the murder of another inmate. At the trial it was brought out that corrections staff had missed finding Ponciano dead during at least one count. The death was not discovered until Vickers called over a corrections officer and told him to get Ponciano out of his cell. When the officer hesitated, Vickers shoved the burning end of a cigar into one of Ponciano’s bare feet. When Ponciano did not react to his foot being burned, the officer called for back up.
In 1981, Vickers was scheduled for execution but a stay was granted by U.S. District Judge Carl Muecke. Vickers was angry because he had asked to be executed. Vickers told the press that he hoped someone “snuffs Judge Muecke’s momma” and that he would carve the Judge’s name on his next victim. The death penalty for Ponciano’s murder would later be overturned and Vickers would be given a sentence of life in prison.
On March 4, 1982, Vickers was working as a porter cleaning a four-man pod area. The other three inmates were locked in their cells. Buster Holsinger, a fellow Death Row inmate, made a lewd comment about Vickers’ teenage niece. Vickers had shown Holsinger a photograph of his niece and a drawing she had sent him in a letter. Holsinger then asked Vickers if he had ever performed a certain sex act on his niece. Vickers became infuriated and went back to his cell. He made a homemade incendiary device using an ice cream carton which he filled with five bottles of Vitalis hair oil and tissue paper which he used as a fuse. He went to the front of Holsinger’s cell, lit the oil and tossed the burning carton on Holsinger. When there were not enough flames to engulf the obese and invalid Holsinger, Vickers tossed more hair oil on him. Holsinger’s cell became filled with smoke and flames as his mattress, bedding and other items caught on fire. Holsinger died from inhaling the hot fumes of the burning oil. The other two inmates were hospitalized for smoke inhalation. Vickers would be given another death sentence for Holsinger’s murder.
Bonzai became well known for being able to slip out of handcuffs and for making and hiding weapons. Vickers assaulted 12 corrections officers and 20 inmates while in prison. He received disciplinary sanctions for 40 counts of making and possessing weapons. In 1986, Vickers managed to stab an officer in his lower side with a home-made spear. He made the weapon out of a sharpened piece of metal he had taken out of a typewriter. Vickers was in his cell at the time. The officer had just served Vickers his breakfast through a slot when Vickers stabbed him. He formed a 30 inches long handle out of tightly rolled and pasted newspapers.
Special security measures were taken with Vickers. Besides regular handcuffs, thumb cuffs were used whenever Vickers was removed from his cell. In Cell Block-6, a special “cage” was created and welded at the entrance of his regular cell. Vickers would have to enter the cage while nude. His regular cell would then be closed behind him. Officers would then visually inspect him for any weapons, handcuff keys or contraband. He would then be given clothes to put on. Officers would then cuff him, remove him from the cage and escort him to wherever he had to go. Vickers was moved from CB-6 to the Special Management Unit, a super maximum custody unit. This unit would house the most troublesome inmates in the state.
On May 5, 1999, Robert Wayne “Bonzai Bob” Vickers was executed by lethal injection. His last meal included two green chile burritos, French fries with ketchup, vanilla ice cream, cream soda and one cigarette. There were no regrets from prison staff when Bonzai was finally executed except maybe why did it take so long.