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Troy Anderson: Are prisoner's conditions worse since winning supermax lawsuit?

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Troy Anderson, a mentally ill inmate at Colorado's supermax prison, won a landmark decision last summer when a federal judge ruled he's entitled to at least three hours a week of fresh air and outdoor exercise. Now, Anderson's attorneys claim Department of Corrections officials have failed to comply with several key aspects of the court order -- and that their client is worse off than before, with less effective mental health treatment, following a transfer from the supermax to solitary confinement at the Sterling Correctional Facility.

In court papers recently filed in the case, Anderson's legal team -- which includes student lawyers at the University of Denver -- contend that the situation at Sterling has deteriorated to the point where Anderson declined to leave his cell or accept food trays for nearly two months, living on canteen items, because he feared he might assault staff. He asserts that a counselor who saw him after several weeks of such isolation told him that him that Sterling's mental health staff was there to provide "triage and not treatment."

Anderson, who's serving an 83-year sentence stemming from two shootouts with police, 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." He was one of ten inmates who has been at the Colorado State Penitentiary for ten years or more with hardly any exposure to the outdoors during that time; exercise at CSP consists of an hour in a small room with a chin-up bar and outdoor air piped in through small holes. His lawsuit 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.

Last August, U.S. District Judge Brooke Jackson denounced conditions at CSP as "a paradigm of inhumane treatment" and ordered the DOC to provide Anderson with a re-evaluation of his mental health treatment and outdoor exercise within sixty days.

But rather than modify conditions at CSP, prison officials elected to move Anderson to Sterling four days before that deadline expired. Anderson soon discovered that his "outdoor" rec was partially inside, in a narrow room with concrete walls that offers a small patch of meshed-in sky at its far end. In an affidavit, Anderson describes the experience as "like being in a shoebox."

The move has also resulted in less contact with mental health professionals than Anderson had at CSP, his attorneys claim. Sterling has ten mental health workers to deal with 2,400 inmates; Anderson sees a psychiatrist via video conference once every two months, solely to discuss his medication. He's now on Ritalin, which he says has been "life-changing" in its ability to control his impulsiveness. But he also admits he's had several disputes with Sterling staffers, whom he believes are trying to provoke him. He fears possible confrontations -- thus his decision to stay in his cell for two months.

"The retaliation and harassment continues," Anderson wrote in a letter to Westword shortly after his attorneys' objections were filed. "I have had all my privileges, TV, canteen, phone taken. But I am okay. Mad as hell. But still okay."

State attorneys have not yet filed a response to Anderson's allegations.

More from our Prison Life archive: "Troy Anderson lawsuit: Supermax must provide outdoor rec, judge rules."

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