Mentally Ill in Solitary: Suit Against U.S. Supermax Headed for Settlement

Attorneys who sued the U.S. Bureau of Prisons over alleged abuses of mentally ill inmates  at the nation's highest-security supermax have reached a tentative settlement that could have a profound effect on how the federal prison system uses solitary confinement — particularly at the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum, or ADX, the 23-hour-a-day lockdown facility outside of Florence.

The conditions of the settlement, which are currently being reviewed by senior federal judge Richard Matsch in a two-day hearing, include improved screening of inmates' psychiatric issues before placement in ADX, better training of staff in how to recognize and respond to symptoms of mental illness, and appointment of outside professionals to monitor mental-health treatment programs at the prison. The BOP has already transferred more than a hundred prisoners with diagnoses of mental illness to other facilities and instituted other reforms since the lawsuit was filed five years ago.

"The ADX is a very different place than it was in 2011," plaintiffs' attorney Ed Aro told Judge Matsch at Thursday's hearing. Aro credited an "extraordinary effort" on the part of attorneys, a federal magistrate, Department of Justice officials and other interested parties to reach an agreement in the much-contested case.

As we first reported back in 2012, the lawsuit claimed that the BOP ignored its own regulations in shifting dangerous or hard-to-control inmates to ADX regardless of their mental status, and failed to monitor them properly after they arrived — even to the point of denying them medication or ignoring diagnoses made by other BOP medical staff.  As a result, dozens of severely psychotic prisoners spent most of their time in the prison's most restrictive units, where they were known to mutilate themselves, have delusional conversations with ghosts and live in feces-caked isolation cells with little or no contact with mental-health 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."

The lead plaintiff in the case, Harold Cunningham, had been denied medication since his arrival at ADX in 2001, despite a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. He had also been denied any mental-health treatment despite making frequent requests. He told Solitary Watch he was "treated and lived like an animal for years. Stripped of all my clothes for weeks at a time…just a blanket chained to my bed, water turned off, no shower at times. No food, and when they did feed me it was bad food, stale bread and cheese, rotten apple."

Other prisoners reported being four-pointed (cuffed hand and foot to a metal or concrete ADX "bed") in response to suicide attempts or being punished for other infractions by being presented with a "sack lunch" that had no food in it. One prisoner who tried to amputate his own finger with his teeth was reportedly asked by a guard how the finger tasted.

The BOP has acknowledged no wrongdoing in the case and has gradually eased into new approaches to mental health, including group therapy sessions in which prisoners sit in individual cages — but in the same room with a psychologist leading the session. The prison also now allows mental-health staff to meet individually with prisoners, separated by a glass partition but in private, rather than simply chatting with them from outside their double-doored cell, where other inmates could hear them discuss their problems.

But video testimony from other plaintiffs in the suit who are still in isolation at ADX suggests more needs to be done. Ronnie Lee Houston, who's spent six years at ADX and has been behind bars most of his life since the age of ten, described various suicide attempts and limited contact with medical staff. Although an outside team that evaluated him in 2014 diagnosed him as bipolar and recommended that he be placed in residential treatment elsewhere, it took another eighteen months to move him from the control unit to "general population" (which is still largely solitary confinement) at ADX. "It was like pulling teeth to get it done," he testified. "Every doctor I've had has changed my diagnosis."

Among the terms of the settlement Matsch has to review are the awards of attorneys' fees and costs to Aro and others who worked on the case.  The plaintiffs' attorneys are seeking an award of $2.93 million in fees and nearly a million dollars in costs, contending that the figures represent only a partial return on the estimated $17 million in attorney time devoted to the case. If approved, the settlement does not preclude individual claims for damages that might be made by prisoners who believe their rights were violated at the supermax.
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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