In what amounts to a landmark decision, a federal judge has ruled that the conditions of solitary confinement at the Colorado State Penitentiary constitute "a paradigm of inhumane treatment" and must change -- notably, so that inmates locked down in their cells 23 hours a day can have at least three hours a week of natural light, fresh air and outdoor exercise. "The Eighth Amendment does not mandate comfortable prisons, but it does forbid inhumane conditions," U.S. District Judge Brooke Jackson wrote in an order issued last Friday.
CSP has an interior courtyard that could be modified to permit outdoor exercise for inmates, Jackson notes. But since it opened in 1993, the state supermax has permitted its high-security inmates only to exercise in an odd-shaped room on each tier equipped with a chin-up bar; small holes allow some fresh air from outside to reach the room. Calling CSP "out of step with the rest of the nation" -- even the notorious federal supermax in Florence allows its inmates outdoor recreation in individual cages -- Jackson declared that prison officials must provide its charges with "meaningful exposure" to natural light and air.
Jackson's ruling came in the case of Troy Anderson, 42, a mentally ill inmate serving an 83-year sentence stemming from two shootouts with police. He's one of ten inmates who have been at CSP for ten years or more with hardly any exposure to the outdoors (except during transport to court) during that time. His lawsuit, filed with the aid of student lawyers from the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law, challenged several aspects of life at CSP, from mental health treatment to the policies that have kept him from progressing to a less restrictive prison, as unconstitutional.
Nicknamed "Evil," Anderson has a long history of erratic behavior, suicide attempts and violence going back to an early age, a voluminous psychiatric record explored in my 2006 feature "Head Games." Prison officials maintain that he poses an ongoing threat to himself and other inmates as well as staff.
But Jackson found that the challenges in managing an inmate such as Anderson didn't justify the total denial of any access to outdoor recreation. Citing the testimony of one senior official who defended the current exercise regime, he wrote, "The fact that this highly experienced senior official in the CDOC believes that a tiny indoor room with a chin-up bar and a grate with small openings to the outside provides an 'outdoor environment' and 'lots of opportunities for exercising,' and that it is okay for Mr. Anderson to be confined without outdoor exercise or any real exposure to fresh air and the out of doors for twelve years and counting, is troubling, to say the least."
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On other issues, the judge ordered a fresh look at Anderson's medication issues and mental health treatment. He adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward new policies that are supposed to address other inmate concerns about how inmates receive bad behavior reports, known as "negative chrons," that can prolong their stay in solitary confinement without a clear appeal process.
At Anderson's trial, other inmates testified about suicidal thoughts brought on by the severe isolation and being deprived of any exposure to the outdoors. "I go to bed crying sometimes because I feel I have no hope of being outside of that cell any more," one said.
More from our News archive: "Troy Anderson lawsuit: Supermax conditions draw criticism from judge."