Supermax: The Faces of a Prison's Mentally Ill

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In a lawsuit filed yesterday, these inmates at America's most famous and secure prison allege a cycle of abuse and madness, neglect, and retribution. (The second in a three-part series.)

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

You don't get to be an inmate at ADX-Florence, America's most famous and secure prison, without having first achieved a measure of infamy in the nation's penal system. Name a convicted terrorist, foreign or domestic, and there is a strong likelihood that he is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole at the maximum security federal facility in southern Colorado. Terry Nichols. Ramzi Yousef. Ted Kaczynski. Zacarious Moussaoui. Eric Robert Rudolph. Richard Reid. They are all there -- all the eggs in one basket, you might say.

But there are hundreds of other prisoners at the federal prison complex known to the world as "ADX" or "Supermax" you likely have never heard of and who have made it to the facility because they have run into trouble at other prisons around the nation. The Aryan Brotherhood is represented at the prison, for example, and so are members of other notorious prison gangs. As a prisoner, you may be assigned to Supermax if you attack another inmate, or if you injure a guard, or if prison officials otherwise believe you present a particular threat to prison staff or other inmates.

Each of five prisoners named as plaintiffs in a new civil rights case filed Monday against the Bureau of Prisons fall into this category. So do the six other inmates whose stories are chronicled in the long complaint, which alleges that prison officials are failing or refusing to adequately diagnose and treat mentally ill prisoners in their care. In some cases, these men were mentally ill, or retarded, before they came to Colorado. In other cases, the inhumane treatment of the men has made them mad, or at least exacerbated their preexisting mental health problems.

The lawsuit, styled Bacote v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, seeks to force the federal officials to provide better mental health care for these inmates. But the litigation also raises fundamental questions about how the Bureau of Prisons treats these men. They are felons, violent felons in most cases, but even so they are entitled to be treated in a humane way by government officials. The Eighth Amendment, with its prescription against "cruel and unusual punishment," commands this. And so do explicit federal laws and policies.

No evaluation of this new case, or of the fate of America's mentally ill prisoners more generally, can be complete without a look into the narratives of the lives of the men who are being punished in this fashion. It is a haunting view. Their madness begets cruelty and indifference from prison officials and doctors. And the cruelty and indifference from the officials and doctors begets more madness. In the meantime, the American taxpayer pays for all of it; the alleged abuse and neglect, and even torture, is done in our name.

In our name -- but not necessarily done for our own good. "One common misconception about ADX is that everybody there is never getting out of prison. That's not true, and it's one of the main problems with failing to treat the mentally ill while they are there," says Ed Aro, a partner at Arnold & Porter, the venerable law firm that brought the lawsuit, along with the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. Aro adds:

We currently represent almost 50 inmates who are or recently have been housed at ADX. One is already in the community and was released with no transitional assistance whatsoever. 11 more will be released within 5 years, 18 within 10 years and 28 within 20 years. Without treatment, these people will have a very difficult time reentering society safely and successfully.

THE PLAINTIFFS

Part I of this series offered a close look at the story of Jack Powers, a current Supermax inmate who alleges in vivid detail how he went mad in custody because of the mistreatment he received from prison officials. Here, below, is a brief summary of the stories of each of the other 10 prisoners named in the complaint -- how they came to Supermax and why they allege that they are owed more from the law than their captors currently provide them. Judge for yourself whether these men should be in this place at this time.

bacote.jpg Michael Bacote: He is the first named plaintiff in the case. Age 37, functionally illiterate, and deemed "mildly mentally retarded" a decade ago by a prison psychologist, Bacote was sent to ADX in 2005 after pleading guilty to murder in a case involving the death of a fellow inmate at the federal prison in Texas. (Evidently, he did not kill the victim but rather stood guard while others did.) Bacote has been diagnosed as suffering from "major depressive disorder with psychotic features" as well as from "paranoid ideations," and he also may suffer the after-effects of severe closed-head injury.

Bacote refuses to take medicine that has been ground up from pill form by prison officials. And they, in turn, refuse to allow Bacote to take his medicine in pill form. Bacote has repeatedly tried to transfer out of Supermax. Over and over again, his requests have been denied. Despite the prior diagnoses from prison doctors, for example, paragraph 138 of the complaint alleges that ADX officials in April 2009 told Bacote that "a review of your file does not indicate you are mentally ill or mentally retarded."


cunningham.jpg Harold Cunningham: At age 41, Cunningham is serving a life sentence plus 380 years for a series of crimes, including murders and robberies. In 1996, representing himself in a state trial, he suddenly stabbed a witness -- in open court, in front of judge and jury. Long before that incident, Cunningham had been diagnosed with "conduct disorder, under-socialized aggressive needs, and major depression." Following the courtroom attack, Cunningham was diagnosed by a renown psychiatrist with "paranoid schizophrenia," "antisocial personality disorder," and "borderline intellectual function."

Cunningham arrived at ADX/Supermax in 2001, was taken off his existing medication, and was promptly placed in the prison's ultra-secure Control Unit, a place where prisoners are not permitted to take psychotropic medication. Once, in 2004, he was given a "telepsychiatry" session whereby he was able to speak via video conference with an off-site psychiatrist. During the "session," Cunningham was allegedly handcuffed from behind with shackles on on his legs and surrounded by corrections officers. He has received no mental health treatment since 2001, the Supermax complaint alleges.


shaifer2.jpgErnest Norman Shaifer. Age 49, with a family history of mental illness that is both tragic and shocking, Shaifer has been in and out of prison for decades. Long ago diagnosed with bipolar disorder, in 2002 Shaifer attacked a prison chaplain at one of the ADX facilities next to Supermax. For that he was prosecuted -- and also reevaluated by several mental health experts, each of whom diagnosed him as mentally ill and recommended medication as a treatment for his disorder.

But after Shaifer was sent back to Colorado, he was soon was sent to its Control Unit and thus deprived of any psychotropic medication. As paragraph 165 of the complaint alleges, a Supermax prison psychologist who looked at the Shaifer family's history of major mental illness -- including suicide and murder -- decided that the inmate had used that history to "fabricate" his own symptoms. Barring any new incidents, Shaifer is expected to be released from prison in 2014 -- having been untreated for over a decade.


pinson.jpg Jeremy Pinson. Age 26, with a history of epilepsy, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, he is at Supermax for making threats against the president of the United States and others. When he was first sentenced, Pinson's trial judge recommended that he serve his sentence at a federal prison designed for mentally ill prisoners. Instead, the Bureau of Prisons assigned Pinson to another prison. Pinson then threatened another official. Again, he was convicted. This time, a federal judge "strongly recommended" that he be sent to a suitable facility. Again, the Bureau of Prisons rejected the recommendation.

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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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