Class Action Suit Against Supermax : Treatment Not Fit for Dogs

A class action has been filed against the Bureau of Prisons and several top officials by 11 mentally ill inmates, on behalf of all mentally ill inmates, alleging horrific mistreatment at Supermax Prison in Florence, Colorado. The case is Bacote, et al v. Federal Bureau of Prisons. A website has been set up with information about the case, SuperMaxLawsuit.com. According to the 108 page complaint which alleges deliberate mistreatment:

Some prisoners mutilate their own bodies with razors, shards of glass, sharpened chicken bones, writing utensils and whatever other objects they can obtain. Others swallow razor blades, nail clippers, broken glass and other dangerous objects. Many engage in fits of screaming and ranting for hours on end. Others carry on delusional conversations with the voices they hear in their heads, oblivious to reality and the danger that such behavior might pose to themselves and to anyone who interacts with them.

Still others spread feces and other waste throughout their cells, throw it at the correctional staff and otherwise create health hazards at ADX. Suicide attempts are common; many have been successful."


You can view photos of the cells and recreation cages and areas, as well as the 11 mentally ill inmate-plaintiffs at the end. Here's a factsheet with each inmates' photo and circumstances.

The suit was filed by the DC Prisoners' Project of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and the law firm Arnold & Porter. More case details ehrel

It's not just lifers at Supermax. Lead counsel Ed Aro of Arnold & Porter says:

"Not everyone at ADX will die in prison. A quarter of our mentally ill clients there will be released into the community in the next five years, and almost 60% will be released in the next 20 years. Unless the BOP reforms the mental health system at ADX, it will be very, very difficult for mentally ill prisoners held there to return to society safely and successfully."

Aro says Supermax is a "national disgrace."

"No one disputes that certain prisoners require a closely controlled prison environment. But for people with mental illness, confinement with little or no mental health care in the isolated and brutal conditions at ADX is torment. It's wrong and it's unconstitutional."

The DC Prisoner's Project Director, Philip Fornaci, says:

"Americans would not allow sick or wounded animals to be treated as these prisoners are treated. They should not sanction the inhumane treatment of U.S. citizens, whatever crimes they committed in the past. We will not stop until this situation has changed."

A wrongful death lawsuit was filed earlier this month by the brother of Jose Martin Vega, who lasted six years at Supermax, when he hung himself in his cell at age 35.

There are 400-500 inmates at ADX. There are 9 housing units, divided into 5 security levels: Control Unit, Special Security Unit, Special Housing Unit, four General Population Units, and two Intermediate/Transitional Units.

The Control Unit is the most secure, with the inmates being placed in almost total solitary confinement. Their only contact is with guards, for years at a time. From the Vega lawsuit:

Prisoners spend at least 20, and as much as 24, hours per day in their individual cells, which measure approximately 12 feet by 7 feet. The cells have solid walls, thereby preventing prisoners from viewing the interiors of other cells or having direct contact with prisoners in adjacent cells. The cells have solid doors with a small slot at the base through which food is delivered twice a day. Each cell is furnished with a bed, desk and stool made of poured concrete, toilets and showers with automatic shut-off valves and sinks without water taps. The beds are usually dressed with a thin mattress and blankets over the concrete.

Each cell contains a single window, approximately 42 inches tall and 4 inches wide, which allows entry of some natural light but ensures that the prisoners cannot see much outside
of their cells other than the building and sky.

Many cells, except those in the Special Housing Unit, are equipped with a remotely-controlled radio or television that offers religious and
educational programming. These are often withheld from prisoners as punishment.

According to BOP policy, the mentally ill should not be sent to Supermax:

BOP procedures state that “inmates currently diagnosed as suffering from serious psychiatric illnesses should not be referred for placement at … ADX.BOP Program Statement 5100.08, “Inmate Security Designation and Custody Clarification,” Chapter 7, p. 18.

Notwithstanding that policy:

Many ADX Florence inmates suffer from various mental illnesses, including depression, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, mental retardation, and other serious mental conditions.

Those in the Control Unit are not provided medication:

At the times relevant in this action, ADX policy does not allow prisoners, while they reside in the Control Unit, to receive medication to treat or ameliorate the effects of mental illness. As a result, these conditions of confinement virtually assure that prisoners’ condition will continue to deteriorate, and that they will continue to respond to the BOP staff in ways that lengthen their time in the Control Unit’s solitary confinement conditions.

The Vega lawsuit says it is common for Defendants to place an incoming prisoner taking psychotropic medication in the Control Unit, where such medication is not available.

The staffing is woefully inadequate:

At the relevant time, upon information and belief only two mental health professionals -- both psychologists -- were responsible for the mental health of the approximately 450 inmates housed at ADX, assisted very occasionally by a psychiatrist.

One horror story, Jaison Legett:

Mr. Leggett has been at ADX since 2002. During that time, he has suffered from intense pain associated first with osteomyelitis in his leg, and then, following amputation, a poorly-fitted prosthetic. On three separate occasions, he has attempted to alleviate this pain by cutting his leg with a razor blade and then swallowing the blade.

When, several years ago, Mr. Leggett damaged his prosthetic and swallowed some of its parts, BOP officials refused to provide a replacement. He has since been forced to hop or crawl around his cell and prison corridors and stairs. Years of humiliation and pain have aggravated his mental illness, and he has repeatedly attempted suicide by various means. Although a BOP physician acknowledged in 2003 that Mr. Leggett suffers from a mental disorder, he reports that he has not received any psychotropic medication since 2005

But the most horrific story may be that of John Jay Powers, age 50:

Mr. Powers was convicted of bank robbery in 1990. At that time, he had no history or symptoms of serious mental illness. While in custody, he witnessed three inmates murder another inmate, stabbing him 13 times. He was transferred to protective custody, twice testified against the murderers, and suffered repeated threats against his life by other inmates. Around this time, he began to suffer from PTSD. He briefly escaped from prison and was transferred to ADX in 2001, where he spent nearly 10 years in an isolation unit and became mentally deranged.

While at ADX, Mr. Powers has amputated his testicle, bitten off his finger, amputated his scrotum, and repeatedly attempted suicide. In 2009, a BOP psychologist concluded that Mr. Powers “does not have an active mental disorder” and “is not in need of custody for care or treatment.” Since then, he has bitten off another finger, tattooed himself extensively, amputated his scrotum, sliced off his earlobes, sawed through his Achilles tendon, and mutilated his genitals.

ADX officials have frequently treated these acts as disciplinary violations, and until very recently have denied him medication.

The lawsuit claims that the 11 inmates have faced retaliatory consequences from associating with counsel that filed the lawsuit:

Since counsel for Plaintiffs began communicating with ADX prisoners in mid-2011, according to the complaint, ADX staff have retaliated against these prisoners by interfering with their mail, reading privileged attorney-client communications, confiscating or “losing” their personal belongings, threatening them, and confining them in segregated disciplinary units.

You wouldn't treat a dog this way. That we allow the Government to treat mentally ill inmates in this fashion in our name is simply unacceptable.

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  • Display: Sort:
    Absolutely horrifying. (5.00 / 2) (#1)
    by jeffinalabama on Mon Jun 18, 2012 at 09:32:01 PM EST
    Also, humans are social animals. Depriving the inmates of social interaction for extended lengths of time can rapidly lead to various psychoses. I can't stand the idea of supermax prisons to begin with, but to find out the abuse by the system going on inside of them creates disgust, but not surprise.

    For anyone without concerns over corrections officer behaviors, please check the web and Youtube for the Zimbardo Stanford prison experiment.

    The watchers get corrupted by their own power.

    Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?  Who will watch the watchers?

    not so easy to solve (5.00 / 1) (#2)
    by diogenes on Mon Jun 18, 2012 at 10:11:45 PM EST
         These prisoners have the same spectrum of severe psychoses and self-mutilation as many patients who are not in prison.  I see many patients who hallucinate, self-mutilate, throw feces and blood, etc.  It is obvious that that they should have treatment and medication, although ironically many refuse it and their right to refuse treatment is then defended by prisoner rights advocates.
         This begs another point, though.  If you house feces throwers and psychotically violent people in a ward with other such people, either prisoners will injure and kill each other or there will be a lot of pepper spray and restraints.  It may be better than solitary, but recognize the costs.
         Perhaps a coterie of reform-minded advocates can actually work in such a ward in a supermax to show the supermax system how it is done.  

    Why do these inmates have access to (5.00 / 1) (#3)
    by oculus on Mon Jun 18, 2012 at 10:16:56 PM EST
    razor blades and other objects with which they can harm themselves, other inmates, correctional officers, etc.?

    Wrong Question. (5.00 / 1) (#6)
    by Chuck0 on Tue Jun 19, 2012 at 08:53:24 AM EST
    Unconstitutional and Unamerican (5.00 / 1) (#4)
    by Lora on Mon Jun 18, 2012 at 10:36:37 PM EST
    How can people treat other people this way?

    This is not even remotely approaching any known concept of justice.

    treatment (5.00 / 1) (#5)
    by pngai on Tue Jun 19, 2012 at 02:14:09 AM EST
    So many of these prisoners have serious mental illness yet not only do they not get any medication or treatment by real doctors but the only approach the BOP seems to have is increasing the level of punishment which seems really unlikely to work with the mentally ill.