Fires, Hangings, Madness: Is Florence SHU the Worst Cellblock in America?

As we reported last week, the United States government recently agreed to pay $175,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by the family of Robert Knott, a severely mentally ill inmate who committed suicide in 2013 while in solitary confinement at the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum (ADX), the federal supermax in Florence.

Although that settlement came with no admission of wrongdoing, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons has, in response to a class-action lawsuit challenging the placement of mentally ill prisoners in 23-hour-a-day lockdown, made significant policy changes in recent years in an effort to move delusional  inmates out of isolation and into treatment programs. 

But for some federal convicts with the highest mental-health needs, the big shift may have left them in a worse situation than before.

As a result of the lawsuit, the BOP moved several of its most problematic prisoners — including those who "have a chronic history of self-injurious behavior or do not function effectively in a prison setting" — out of ADX and into a new program next door at the high-security U.S. Penitentiary Florence. The program, known as Secure STAGES (short for Steps Toward Awareness, Growth and Emotional Strength), was supposed to help those who'd been isolated for years to interact with each other, participate in group therapy and gradually earn more privileges. 

Some inmates have reportedly made dramatic improvements in the STAGES setting. But a subset of the ADX transfers proved so disruptive, uncooperative or combative that they were bounced from the program. Several ended up in the Special Housing Unit at USP Florence, a lockdown unit that, according to letters written by half a dozen residents to Westword, is a far more chaotic and challenging environment than ADX.

The Florence SHU is a place where inmates set fires and spray blood in their cells, attempt to kill or mutilate themselves and hurl feces at their captors — whom the inmates also accuse of beating them or ignoring medical emergencies. 

"Inmates are so neglected that they set fires in their cells to summon a supervisor for basic needs like accessing a medical doctor for chest pains," reports inmate Jeremy Pinson. "Overdoses, hangings, cut wrists, fights, you name it — it happens here."

"I try to go to the law library, but they will not let me because of the lawsuit I have against them," writes inmate Davon Coppage. "And they will not let me see a psychologist about my mental problems. On 2-17-16 my cell was on fire and the fire alarms was turned off because they turn them off so they ain't got to hear it. After thirty minutes a c/o [corrections officer] comes to my cell door, puts out the fire, and ask what I want. I tell him I want to see a psychologist. He said no. I ask why not. He said, 'Because he ain't getting one.'"

Rashod James claims that, while guards are supposed to make rounds on the SHU every half hour, they often can't be found for two or three hours at a time. James should know: Prison incident reports reflect that he started fires in his cell four times over a two-week period earlier this year. In the middle of the night on January 19, he waited for a lieutenant to be summoned in response to one fire before ingesting a bag of pills in front of the officer, prompting a trip to the emergency room of a Cañon City hospital. On another occasion, he barricaded his food slot in an effort to keep the fire from being put out.

An inmate in a nearby cell complains, "The smoke came in my cell through the vent. I couldn't breathe, and they never came to check on me. I don't feel safe at all. I'm scared for my life."

"Life here is on two speeds — silence or chaos," adds Maurice Wilson, who's been at the USP Florence for three years — and in solitary much longer. "Being in isolation is an extremely harsh experience. It chews away at your soul until you just feel empty and devoid of hope. Inmates mutilate themselves, hang, overdose every week, seeking death or desperately crying out for help. But instead of help we get disciplinary charges and more seg [segregation] time. Despite assurances to Congress, the BOP is doubling down on solitary and stepping up retaliation against us who speak out."

Wilson claims that he recently took a hundred Tylenol capsules in an effort to kill himself. "I was hospitalized, then put right back in my cell with a bottle of more pills still on my desk," he says. "They don't care if I die. They hope for it."

"Sitting in a cell 24/7 is maddening," Pinson agrees. "Almost daily I struggle with urges to harm myself."

At one point a named plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit against ADX, Pinson may have the most extensive and troubling psychiatric history of all the SHU cases.

Neglected and sexually abused as a child, he began exhibiting signs of psychosis before he was ten. At thirteen, he sent threatening letters to the President of the United States and vowed to blow up his school. After numerous run-ins with the law, multiple suicide attempts and more death threats against the President, he was sentenced to twenty years in federal prison. Although he'd been diagnosed with schizophrenia and other mental disorders, he was sent to ADX in 2011. There, he continued to deteriorate. 

Some prison psychologists have described Pinson as attention-seeking and manipulative, even to the extent of faking "symptoms of gender dysphoria." Pinson says he is now undergoing hormone therapy and preparing for gender transition; many other inmates and even some staffers now refer to him as "her" and by the name Grace. "My self-injurious episodes are not motivated nor mitigated by publicity," he says. "I hurt the outside to distract from what hurts inside."

One staff account of how he came to be removed from the STAGES program describes Pinson disrupting meetings by "yelling obscenities and screaming," making his nose bleed and then trying to squirt blood on other participants. Pinson says the STAGES meetings were more about "bitching and snitching" than therapy, and that he has had frequent conflicts with staff over his transgender identity, his mental-health needs and his status as a jailhouse lawyer. He has, by his own account, filed more than a hundred lawsuits against the BOP. 

Since last summer, Pinson has been the subject of numerous incident reports in the SHU. He inflicted a serious wound on his scrotum and has reopened it on occasion. He has shattered the window in his cell door with a belly chain and put the glass in his mouth. He's slashed his wrists and tried to hang himself in his shower. Last January, he was hospitalized after yet another attempt at self-castration. In February, he was back in the ER after, he says, he swallowed glass from his eyeglasses. One risk assessment noted more than 400 contacts with psychology services since he entered federal custody seven years ago. "Her placement in SHU has proven to be detrimental to her mental health," one psychologist noted last fall. 

The BOP doesn't comment on individual disciplinary issues. However, the urging of the prison's mental-health professionals eventually led to Pinson' being assigned a roommate for the first time in almost a decade — followed by a transfer a few weeks ago to USP Allenwood in Pennsylvania. Shortly before the transfer, he reported, "I'm doing much better with a cellmate. Social support is a major benefit to someone like me, who ruminates endlessly."
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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast