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Checking Out of Lockdown

Inmate suicides put the spotlight on medical care at Colorado's supermax.

What passes for life inside the Colorado State Penitentiary didn't suit Kevin Fears and Timothy Russell. So both inmates put an abrupt end to their long sentences -- by killing themselves.

At the state's supermax prison, prisoners spend 23 hours a day in their cells and are shackled when escorted to showers or brief recreation periods in a closet-sized pen. Designed to house the state's most combative inmates in near-total isolation, CSP and its behavior-modification programs have drawn fire from civil-rights groups since the place opened in 1993. But the prison didn't have its first reported suicide until last summer. Now it's had two in three months, and other prisoners say inadequate medical care played a role in both deaths.

Fears, 36, was found dead in his cell on July 16. Convicted of the 1989 execution of two men, one of whom was a key witness in a Denver robbery, he narrowly avoided the death penalty and was sentenced to 224 years in prison. He was one of CSP's first residents. Shortly before he hanged himself, his request to be placed in a less-restrictive prison had been turned down. (Although inmates are supposed to be able to "earn their way" out of CSP by following the rules, the average stay at the prison has nearly doubled over the past decade, to 31 months.)

Russell, forty, hanged himself in his cell on October 17. He'd served ten years of a thirty-year sentence for assault, seven of them in lockdown, and had complained frequently of inadequate health treatment at CSP.

"Neither one of these guys is your typical suicidal man," says inmate Troy Anderson, who led a hunger strike protesting conditions at CSP earlier this year ("Starved for Attention," February 17). "They both had heart, but I guess they just gave up hope."

Colorado Department of Corrections spokeswoman Patti Micciche says CSP officers check on prisoners twice an hour, but both suicides "were timed to occur after rounds were complete." Although she cited privacy laws in declining to comment on individual inmates' medical treatment, she said that reviews by clinical staff determined that "medical and mental health needs were being handled appropriately."

Prisoners who knew Fears and Russell dispute this. At least 12 percent of the CSP population has been diagnosed as mentally ill; records indicate that Russell spent a few weeks in 2003 at San Carlos, the state's special prison for the mentally ill -- before being shipped right back to CSP. Last year Russell filed a case in federal court, complaining of lack of medical care for severe back pain and hepatitis C. In his handwritten claim, he stated that he struck a nurse who'd taunted him and that CSP officials had retaliated by taking away his medications.

"The plaintiff is being blatantly denied any and all medical attention by CSP medical [staff], and as a result of their indifference and retaliation the plaintiff's very life is in danger," he wrote in a motion to the court. The case was soon dismissed.

"He had talked to me a few times about killing himself because he couldn't bear the pain," says an inmate who occupied a cell across from Russell. "The last time he talked about it was over the weekend before he hung himself. He was unable to hold down any food, and he didn't want to fight with medical any more. How insane and sad that is."

"He was found lying on the ground once, but medical was never even called," recalls inmate Nathan Thill. "If he was in another facility, he would have been checked more thoroughly and be able to receive meds that CSP won't give."

Thill, a white supremacist who murdered an African immigrant at a Denver bus stop and left a witness paralyzed, is serving life without parole himself. "I will die in prison one day," he says. "I hope I will be given adequate relief on my final days. I am serving my sentence, but none of us were sentenced to a tortuous death."

Some of Russell's friends were so upset by his suicide that they put in requests to see a mental-health counselor. They say they didn't receive a response for a week.

 
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