Robert Knott: Feds Pay $175K in Supermax Suicide of Man Portrayed by John Stamos

The United States government is paying $175,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by the family of a severely mentally ill inmate who committed suicide  in 2013 while in solitary confinement at the federal supermax in Florence.

Although the settlement contains no admission of fault, one of the attorneys in the case says the facts surrounding Knott's demise demonstrate "clear, clear disregard" of the inmate's mental health needs, his long history of suicidal behavior, and deterioration during ten years of isolation.

Knott, 48, was serving a life sentence for a multi-state kidnapping and crime spree, committed when he was 23, that resulted in the death of his accomplice as well as a hostage.

Captive, a 1991 TV movie about the case, starred a young John Stamos as Knott. Here's a sequence from that film.

He was diagnosed with schizophrenia shortly after his 1988 conviction and spent time in mental hospitals after several suicide attempts.

In 2002, despite a U.S. Bureau of Prisons policy that prohibits the placement of the severely mentally ill in solitary, Knott was sent to the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum, the highest-security lockdown facility in the federal system. He stayed there for the next decade.

According to the complaint filed in the case: "That Mr. Knott suffered from serious mental illness was obvious even to other inmates within ADX. Mr. Knott never attended recreation and never spoke with other prisoners. His cell was always filthy, and Mr. Knott regularly refused to wear clothing. He would frequently watch TV with his face right in front of the screen and the color turned off."

A few days before his suicide, Knott began refusing his food trays and medication, talking incoherently to himself, and resisted turning over a razor blade he'd been provided to shave with, saying he intended to swallow it. He covered the view into his cell — a clear violation of prison rules — yet staff declined to investigate. Guards found him more than an hour after he hung himself, and then left him hanging "for a lengthy period of time while ADX officials scrambled to find an appropriate implement" to cut him down, the complaint states.

A coroner found the cell littered with garbage and marked with writings on the wall, suggesting staff rarely looked into the place. Prison officials refused to allow more than one of the prisoner's limbs to be unshackled at a time as the coroner was examining him, even after he was pronounced dead. 

Knott's death was at least the seventh suicide at ADX and came months after a massive class-action lawsuit challenging the treatment of the mentally ill there.

Kathryn Stimson, one of the attorneys representing Knott's family, says the BOP had ample prior notice that treatment needs at ADX weren't being met. 

"What does it say about our society that we take seriously mentally ill people, lock them in a cage for 24 hours a day, against prison policy and against the advice of prison psychologists, and then the guards who work in the prison disregard clear, clear signs that the person is psychologically deteriorating and let him hang himself and then remove him from the cage in handcuffs?" Stimson asks. "The way our society deals with the mentally ill is broken. Prisons and especially solitary confinement are not the answer. Putting mentally ill people in solitary confinement is torture. Our government does it every single day."
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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