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Patients forced to fight: 'The guards wanted blood'

WAYMART, Pa. – Seasoned criminals who have served time at numerous prisons have vivid memories of violence and brutality at one place in particular – Farview State Hospital.

Some tell of watching men get beaten to death by guards.

Others tell of simply of being cuffed about by guards.

But one of their most searing memories is that of watching inmates, chosen and sponsored by guards, "take the floor" against one another in fistfights that ended when one man could no longer stand out. These matches, patients say, were nothing less than human cockfights.

Nowhere else, they say, have they seen this sort of spectacle – only at Farview.

Most of all, those who were there remember the numerous bloody fistfights, instigated and gambled upon by guards, between John McCullough and Eugene Vernon.

McCullough and Vernon are not big men. But both are muscular. Both are fast of reflex and strong of body. And both spilled a a great deal of blood at the hands of the other in bare-knuckle fistfights staged by guards at Farview.

McCullough came to Farview in 1960 from Camp Hill Correctional Institute, where he was serving time for assault with a knife and auto theft and where he was considered an unmanageable troublemaker. He left Farview in 1962 and spent nearly a decade in prison thereafter. Today, he is an auto mechanic in Philadelphia.

Vernon came to Farview in 1958, at age 15. He was charged with murder, but his trial never took place. He was released in July 1973 after an attorney retained by his family successfully argued that, given the passage of 15 years, Vernon had been denied his constitutional right to a speedy trial. But he was arrested a year later and convicted of a second homicide, a case now under appeal before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Vernon and McCullough each remembers the other, and the human cockfights at Farview, as if they happened yesterday.

McCullough says one incident in particular stays with him. It was a fight he observed that ended when the losing inmate could no longer get up off the floor.

The man lay there, McCullough recalls, face swollen, bleeding from his nose and mouth and deep cuts above both eyes. As he gasped for air, a guard walked over to him, kicked him repeatedly in the back and sides and screamed: "Get up, you nigger. You made me lose my money. I'll teach you how to fight!"

McCullough says he fought dozens of bouts while a patient at Farview.

The loser of the fights often would be beaten by guards who lost money betting on him.

"The guards would clear an area on a ward. They would then form a ring by placing benches around the room," McCullough says.

"The match would be stopped only after one man was either knocked out or had been bloodied," McCullough says.

McCullough says he was always good with his hands. "But when I saw what happened to the loser of a fight (at Farview), I was determined not to ever lose.

"Once I beat a man until his eye fell out of the socket. The guards wanted blood, and if they didn't get it, they would beat you even if you were winning the fight."

Other former inmates say that the guards often would stage bouts between the toughest men from different wards.

The combatants in those fights usually would be about even in size and weight, though sometimes the guards would force a mismatch – a small man against a big man.

Vernon interviewed at Western State Correctional Institution in Pittsburgh, is a nervous, bitter man who the courts say is emotionally disturbed. His memories of Farview, however, are quite vivid and match those of other inmates in nearly every detail:

"They (the guards) would take me over to the ward where McCullough lived. They would say, "This is my coon, my nigger. He can beat your nigger." Vernon says he fought McCullough about 15 times.

Vernon, like McCullough, remembers the fights as brutal and bloody.

"I knocked a man's teeth out of his mouth. I broke my hand," he says, pointing to disfigured knuckles on one of his hands.

"The guards would come up to me and urge me to fight. I would be beaten if I didn't, and all my visits would be cut off. If I won, I got special privileges."

McCullough, who won most of the matches, described Vernon as a strong fighter who fought in a rage. "He always kept boring in, no matter how much or how hard you hit him," McCullough said.

Vernon, who most often lost to McCullough, describes him only as a good fighter.

Both men say that after awhile they refused to fight one another or other inmates. Vernon says he stopped because he figured "I was going to get beat either way."

"I used to be like a Tom for the guards," he says. "I didn't want to get beat, but they beat me anyway. I finally decided that they were going to kill me anyway. I was convinced that I wasn't going to leave there alive. But I was going to die as a man. I wasn't going to do what they said any more."

Farview has left both mental and physical scars on Vernon. Both of his arms, from wrist to just below the elbow, are covered with scars and slash marks, wounds that Vernon says were self-inflicted.

"I would slash my arms with pieces of glass, metal or razor blades. I hoped that maybe if I cut myself bad enough I would be sent to another hospital. Maybe I could tell someone about this place."

Vernon escaped once during his 15-year commitment at Farview, but was captured a few hours later by State Police.

During the interview, Vernon said that the fights with McCullough were bad, but that they were not the worst thing about Farview.