Update: Yesterday, Alan Prendergast reported on a supermax lawsuit alleging shocking mistreatment of mentally ill prisoners. We've added a copy of the suit, plus photos of the facility and the imprisoned plaintiffs in the case. See it below following Prendergast's piece.
Original post by Alan Prendergast: "A Clean Version of Hell" -- that's what a 2007 segment of 60 Minutes called the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum, or ADX, home to some of the world's most notorious murderers and terrorists.
But according to a grimly detailed lawsuit filed [Monday] in Denver and alleging systemic mistreatment of mentally ill prisoners, the federal supermax is actually a filthy version of hell -- a place where untreated psychotic men mutilate themselves, have delusional conversations with ghosts and live in feces-caked isolation cells for months with little monitoring.
Filed on behalf of five ADX inmates and another half-dozen "interested parties" who are also prisoners there, the suit claims that the U.S. Bureau of Prisons ignores its own regulations in shifting dangerous or hard-to-control inmates to ADX regardless of their mental status, and fails to monitor them properly after they arrive -- even to the point of denying them medication or ignoring diagnoses made by other BOP medical staff.
"Many prisoners at ADX interminably wail, scream, and bang on the walls of their cells," the complaint alleges. "Some mutilate their bodies with razors, shards of glass, sharpened chicken bones, writing utensils, and whatever other objects they can obtain. A number swallow razor blades, nail clippers, parts of radios and televisions...still others spread feces and other human waste and body fluids throughout their cells, throw it at the correctional staff and otherwise create health hazards at ADX. Suicide attempts are common."
One of the interested parties, Jack Powers, had no history of mental illness before his 1990 conviction for bank robbery. He witnessed an inmate-on-inmate killing, testified in the case, tried to escape -- and ended up in isolation at ADX for ten years. While there, he bit off a finger, amputated a testicle, tattooed his body with a razor blade, tried to inject bacteria in his brain, mutilated his genitals and repeatedly attempted suicide. All of these incidents happened after the BOP had diagnosed Powers as mentally ill and was supposedly monitoring him.
Several of the parties associated with the suit have committed ghastly crimes -- including William Sablan, who joined with a cousin in disemboweling another prisoner in the SHU at the USP Florence in 1999. Sablan is now doing a life sentence for that murder. But the suit points out that other severely mentally ill prisoners at ADX are eligible for release soon despite their lack of treatment.
At least six prisoners have committed suicide at ADX since it opened in 1994. The complaint contains descriptions of staff allegedly goading prisoners to kill themselves, abusing them and denying them food -- including a lunchbag "prank" that involves making a videotaped record of staffers handing the prisoner a sack lunch, then leaving the prisoner to discover the sack is empty. Prisoners the staff want to punish are sometimes transferred to cells already caked with feces from the previous occupant, the suit claims.
"They do what they do because they can," says Ed Aro, an attorney with Arnold and Porter, which filed the suit in collaboration with the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. "There's a pervasive philosophy at ADX that approves of using punitive methods to deal with aberrant behavior -- that if you've got someone who's suicidal, punishing them and putting them in the hole will keep them from killing themselves."
Aro says he's interviewed more than 100 inmates at the supermax. Some are schizophrenic, deeply delusional or raving psychotics; some are severely retarded. The complaint makes numerous allegations about correctional staff interfering with inmate mail, contact with attorneys and acts of retaliation against the plaintiffs. "The guys who have agreed to be the plaintiffs in this case have more guts than anybody I've ever met," he says.
While the prison ostensibly has a process for prisoners to complain of mistreatment, the complaint notes that the SIA, or special investigative agent, who's supposed to handle reports of officer misconduct is Dianna Krist -- the wife of ADX Captain Russell Krist, who oversees the correctional staff. In other words, "the watchdog is married to the person whose staff the watchdog is responsible for investigating."
As first reported in Westword in 2007, supermax officials have cited "security concerns" as a reason forbanning all face-to-face press interviews with inmates at the facility since 2001. A BOP spokesman declined to respond to questions about the lawsuit, saying the agency would not comment on pending litigation.
Update by Michael Roberts, 10:45 a.m. June 19: Backers of the supermax lawsuit described above, including the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, have created a website, Supermaxlawsuit.com, to serve as a public repository for information about the complaint, formally known as Bacote, et. al., vs. Federal Bureau of Prisons.
The main document, on view below, includes and is accompanied by profiles of the plaintiffs, complete with descriptions of their medical diagnoses. Read them here, as well as see photo exhibits from ADX.
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More from our Prison Life archive: "Troy Anderson lawsuit: Supermax conditions draw criticism from judge."