After nearly five days of testimony in a lawsuit brought by Troy Anderson, a prisoner who's been in solitary confinement for twelve years, a Denver federal judge was strongly urging Colorado Department of Corrections officials to fix the harshest conditions at the state's supermax prison -- before he has to do it for them. "It shouldn't take a federal judge to write an opinion and embarrass the department in the public eye to get this accomplished," U.S. District Brooke Jackson said.
Jackson's remarks, suggesting that there might have to be some drastic changes in the way the Colorado State Penitentiary operates, came midway through testimony in the case brought by Anderson, a state inmate serving what amounts to a life sentence for charges from two shootouts with police in the late 1990s. Anderson, who's been diagnosed with mental illnesses ranging from ADHD to "intermittent explosive disorder," has been confined at CSP since 2000 -- deprived of direct sunlight or outdoor recreation, books (he's allowed two a year), and, he claims, the medications that might actually help him control his behavior, reduce his sentence and get him placed back int the general prison population.
His lawsuit, filed with the aid of student lawyers from the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law, contends that the state prison policies that keep him locked down 23 hours a day and and denied mental health treatment are unconstitutional.
Nicknamed "Evil," Anderson 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's one of ten state inmates who have been kept at the supermax for more than a decade. Prison officials maintain that's because he poses a threat to himself and other inmates as well as staff.
On Friday, former CSP warden Susan Jones, who reviewed Anderson's placement last year, testified that "he told me he can't control his anger. He was real clear that he had a lawsuit filed and that unless he was properly medicated, he shouldn't be moved.... I was really concerned about his ability to go out of CSP and hurt somebody."
But Anderson's attorneys contend that the supermax fails to provide adequate treatment for mentally ill inmates -- who, deprived of medication, exercise and socialization, deteriorate in solitary confinement. Inmates can also receive negative write-ups, or "chrons," from guards that help keep them in segregation, even though they have no opportunity to contest the information. Under direct questioning from Jackson, Jones conceded that the situation needed some "fixing."
Jackson also heard testimony, delivered remotely by video, from other supermax prisoners. David Bueno complained of unhealthy conditions in the closet-like exercise room, equipped with a pull-up bar, that substitutes for outdoor recreation; he described the effort of turning his body around, trying to get "fresh air" from a grate that allows air from outside the prison to enter the exercise room, as similar to that of a chicken turning on a spit.
Inmate Carlos Mondragon said the last time he'd breathed real fresh air was in 2004, when a transport team briefly let him enjoy the snow outside CSP. "It felt real good [to play in the snow]," Mondragon testified, "even though I was all chained up and the escort officers were laughing at me." He's since had frequent suicidal thoughts, he added: "I go to bed crying sometimes because I feel I have no hope of being outside of that cell any more."
Former CSP warden Jones disputed Bueno's claims about "filthy" floors at CSP. Jackson lamented that he couldn't conduct a surprise inspection of the prison himself.
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Breaking into an unusual colloquy with Jones when she was on the stand, Jackson said he was troubled by the lack of meaningful administrative review and the absence of due process in the use of negative "chrons" to keep inmates in solitary for years. "It doesn't seem fair to me," he declared. And some of the other conditions described by inmates, if true, were clearly "inhumane" in his view.
"I understand the difficulties of running a prison," the judge said. "Some of your customers at CSP, I put them there. How do we get this fixed?"
The trial is expected to conclude early next week. Jackson's ruling on the constitutional issues raised by Anderson isn't anticipated for several weeks.
More from our Prison Life archive: "Jeffrey Wells, parole officer, accused of forgery to keep arrestees in jail longer."