Head Games

At least one out of every five Colorado prisoners is mentally ill -- some violent, some undetected or untreated. How did the Big House become the Bug House?

Talk all you want about bad men and madmen. The truly scary ones are those who know rage so well that they scare themselves.

The anger pours out of them without warning, like floodwater surging through crumbling earthworks, rolling and roaring over everything in its path. They become howling bedlamites, bat-shit berserkers, pure engines of mayhem and destruction.

Troy Anderson knows that hot, blinding rush. One moment everything's hunky-dory, the next is a blur of blood and screams. "My anger comes like lighting a match in a dark room," he once told a psychologist.

Sometimes it can take days. There's a perceived slight -- somebody bumps into him, maybe, or disrespects him somehow -- and he broods on it. He can't sleep. His head aches. Then the rage erupts.

"Man, you don't know," Anderson writes from his cell at the Colorado State Penitentiary. His letters shuffle forward in short, hobbled sentences, as if he has to check himself at every turn. "My rage. The horrible things I am capable of when I'm angry. I have like this hole inside. I just trip. Once I get a bad thought, it snowballs in my head. Scares me to death."

When he was ten years old, young Troy shot up a waterbed with his father's handgun and wrote a note to his teacher, telling her that he wished he was dead. At twelve he threatened other students with knives.

By the time he turned fifteen, he'd set fire to a vacant house, run away from his Longmont home and graduated from marijuana to cocaine and heroin. At seventeen, having attempted suicide several times, escaped repeatedly from closed mental wards and racked up a fistful of robbery charges, he fled to California -- and ended up writhing on the pavement, shot in the hip by cops and watching his best friend bleed to death.

At twenty, Anderson began his first stretch in the Colorado Department of Corrections. He did most of it in lockdown, after a series of assaults on staff and other inmates.

At thirty, he survived two shootouts with police in the course of three months; in the second incident, he helped himself to a deputy's gun and took over a bus full of inmates in an underground garage below the Adams County Justice Center. While awaiting trial, he picked up several more charges for biting, stabbing and striking his jailers and hurling feces and urine at them.

At 37, Anderson lives in 23-hour-a-day isolation at CSP, the state's supermax prison. He's doing 75 years on multiple convictions stemming from the shootouts seven years ago and won't see a parole board for another 35 years. His DOC file notes his street nickname -- Evil -- and describes him as "an extreme management problem" and a high escape risk with a long history of violence, drug abuse and mental-health issues.

A pre-sentencing report, prepared when Anderson was only fourteen, called him "a keg of dynamite waiting to explode." He's been blowing up regularly since then. During the past five years, though, he's had no violent incidents whatsoever. Anderson says this is not because of his lockdown status, but in spite of it.

"This place makes you angry," he writes. "Makes you paranoid, testy, anxious and violent. The guards aren't trained to deal with it. They write you up for outbursts. And take away the TV. Which leads to more problems, writeups and cell extractions. I have watched young kids come in here all quiet. And turn violent and full of hate. If people don't have issues prior to CSP, they have them before they leave."

Anderson has spent almost all of his adult life in CSP or other isolation units. In early 2004, a warden's review board told him he'd never be allowed out of solitary unless he was on the proper medications to control his mood swings. He's been trying to get evaluated for medications ever since, he says, without success. In fact, he waited more than a year for an appointment with a DOC psychiatrist -- an appointment that was first requested in July 2005, urged in subsequent memos by a psychologist who visits him on a monthly basis, and only took place last week, days after a reporter inquired about his case.

"CSP is not designed to treat or manage any mental-health problems," Anderson contends. "Everyone I know is in here for 'acting out.' But they don't do anything to treat them."

The DOC refused a request to interview Anderson; as a rule, the department doesn't allow inmates in administrative segregation to communicate with reporters except in writing. But to back up his claims, Anderson made his prison mental-health records available. The file contains a bewildering series of contradictory diagnoses and surmises, as well as evidence of indifference, neglect and outright hostility from the mental-health professionals supposedly treating him. His markedly improved behavior in recent years doesn't seem to have earned him any reciprocal privileges or better care. Treatment plans are proposed but rarely pursued; concerns about security and cost squelch occasional efforts to try promising drugs or therapies.

Extreme as his case may be, Anderson's situation reflects certain fundamental truths facing thousands of mentally ill men and women in Colorado's prisons. For most of them, the treatment available is grossly inadequate. Many will deteriorate further during their time inside, particularly if they're in a place like CSP, where access to actual doctors and drugs is highly restricted. But even non-violent offenders face long waits for psychiatric visits and poor followup. More often than not, they'll return to the streets without viable treatment programs or the means to obtain the medications they need and will soon be behind bars again -- not because they're career criminals, but because they have nowhere else to go.

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