An American Gulag: Descending into Madness at Supermax

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A detailed new federal lawsuit alleges chronic abuse and neglect of mentally ill prisoners at America's most famous prison. (First in a three-part series.)

supermax.jpgIndex of Photographic Exhibits to Plaintiffs' Complaint, Bacote, et al v. United States Bureau of Prisons, et al


When Jack Powers arrived at maximum-security federal prison in Atlanta in 1990 after a bank robbery conviction, he had never displayed symptoms of or been treated for mental illness. Still in custody a few years later, he witnessed three inmates, believed to be members of the Aryan Brotherhood gang, kill another inmate. Powers tried to help the victim get medical attention, and was quickly transferred to a segregated unit for his safety, but it didn't stop the gang's members from quickly threatening him.

Not then. And certainly not after Powers testified (not once but twice) for the federal government against the assailants. The threats against him continued and Powers was soon transferred to a federal prison in Pennsylvania, where he was threatened even after he was put into protective custody. By this time, Powers had developed insomnia and anxiety attacks and was diagnosed by a prison psychologist as suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

powers.jpgAbove: Jack Powers

Instead of giving Powers medicine, or proper mental health therapy, officials transferred him yet again, this time to another federal prison in New Jersey. There, Powers was informed by officials that he would be removed from a witness protection program and transferred back into the prison's general population. Fearing for his life, Powers escaped. When he was recaptured two days later he was sent to ADX-Florence, part of a sprawling prison complex near Florence, Colorado often referred to as "ADX" or Supermax," America's most famous and secure federal prison.

From there, things got worse. The Supermax complex, made up of different secure prison units and facilities, is laden with members of the Brotherhood and Powers was no safer than he had been anywhere else. Over and over again he was threatened at the Colorado prison. Over and over again he injured or mutilated himself in response. Over and over again he was transferred to federal government's special mental health prison facility in Missouri, diagnosed with PTSD, and given medication. Over and over again that medication was taken away when he came back to Supermax.

As he sits today in Supermax, Powers had amputated his fingers, a testicle, his scrotum and his earlobes, has cut his Achilles tendon, and had tried several times to kill himself. Those tattoos you see? Powers had none until 2009, when he started mutilating with a razor and carbon paper. He did much of this -- including biting off his pinkie and cutting skin off his face -- in the Control Unit at ADX while prison officials consistently refused to treat his diagnosed mental illness. Rules are rules, prison officials told him, and no prisoners in that unit were to be given psychotropic medicine no matter how badly they needed it.

CALL AND RESPONSE

If the Powers case were unique it would be shocking enough. Bureau of Prison policies prohibit officials from assigning mentally ill inmates to ADX. And the Eighth Amendment requires prison staff everywhere to adequately diagnose and treat mentally ill prisoners, including those prisoners, like Powers, who evidently become mentally ill while in prison. No law or policy, at any level, would appear to sanction or condone the conduct of those prison officials accountable for the lack of response to Powers' decline.

For these inmates, the prison is a Gulag, a place of unspeakable cruelty and state-sponsored wickedness,

But Powers is not an exception. In federal court in Denver this morning, a new class-action lawsuit was filed against the Bureau of Prisons and the officials in charge of Supermax. The long, detailed complaint, which reads at times like the plot from HBO's Oz, alleges not just "deliberate indifference" on the part of those officials but outright cruelty -- even torture -- in the face of obvious cases of mental illness at the prison. You can read the complaint in its entirety here. The very first paragraph of the pleading states plainly the case:

Currently, BOP [Bureau of Prisons] turns a blind eye to the needs of the mentally ill at ADX and to deplorable conditions of confinement that are injurious, callous and inhumane to those prisoners. No civilized society treats its mentally disabled citizens with a comparable level of deliberate indifference to their plight.

Paragraph 5 of the complaint alleges in more detail:

Prisoners interminably wail, scream and bang on the walls of their cells. Some mutilate their bodies with razors, shards of glass, writing utensils and whatever other objects they can obtain. Some swallow razor blades, nail clippers, parts of radios and televisions, broken glass and other dangerous objects. Others carry on delusional conversations with voices they hear in their heads, oblivious to the reality and the danger that such behavior might pose to themselves and anyone who interacts with them.

There are five named prisoners in the lawsuit (about whom we'll have more detail in the next installment of this series), and its likely that at least six other inmates named in the complaint, and perhaps many more, will soon join the litigation. It's certain that this case will be closely followed around the country because of what it portends for other lawsuits challenging dubious prison isolation policies. The lawsuit does not request money damages. Instead, it seeks an injunction that would require prison officials to better treat the ill men in their care.

And just exactly who are the plaintiffs? Who are these convicted felons seeking redress in federal court? All of them came to Supermax because of violent run-ins at other federal prisons or other parts of the sprawling ADX complex in Florence, Colorado (some of those incidents themselves were a manifestation of their mental illness). One plaintiff got to the control unit at Supermax after he assaulted a prison chaplain. Another, who is likely mentally retarded, pleaded guilty to murdering another inmate. These men are hardly noble. But the Eighth Amendment doesn't require them to be. From paragraph 7 of the complaint:

Plaintiffs are five seriously mentally ill men currently incarcerated at ADX. This Complaint also names as "Interested Individuals" six other current ADX prisoners with serious mental illnesses. ... Many of these men also suffer severe functional impairment of their ability to attend to their own personal needs or even to exist in a world with other people. Several of them are mentally retarded, and at least one is functionally illiterate.

Many of these men aren't serving life sentences. Some will soon be released after going mad in prison, after having preexisting mental illness get worse behind bars. One of the named plaintiffs, for example, is a man named John W. Narducci Jr. His life story is tragic, his criminal conduct unrelenting. Many years ago, his sentencing judge ordered that he be imprisoned in a place that could adequately tend to Narducci's "serious psychological and emotional problems." That didn't happen. And soon he may be free.

Two other Supermax inmates, who are not yet named plaintiffs in the lawsuit, are so severely mentally ill that federal lawyers have allegedly gone to court -- repeatedly -- to have them involuntarily committed or forcibly medicated. One of these men, paragraph 57 of the complaint contends, is scheduled to be released in October 2012 after having had no mental health treatment for the past six years. Paragraph 58 of the complaint focuses upon the other inmate, whom prison officials themselves have conceded has a "mental disease or defect."

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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