Prison Chief's Unnerving Suicide-Prevention Memo: 'I Want You To Succeed'

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After serious allegations of mistreatment at America's most famous federal prison, the agency in charge responds with a touchy-feely letter to inmates.

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Faced with two new federal lawsuits alleging prisoner mistreatment and abuse, one of which chronicles in grim detail the 2010 suicide of an inmate at the Supermax facility in Colorado, the Federal Bureau of Prisons last month sent an extraordinary "Suicide Prevention" memo to "all Bureau Inmates." Charles E. Samuels, Jr., director of the BOP, urged prisoners "unable to think of solutions other than suicide" not to "lose hope" and urged them to "be willing to request help from those around you."

Here's the text of the memo. It is dated July 20, 2012, one month after a class-action lawsuit was filed against federal officials alleging that they have violated the constitutional rights of prisoners by refusing or failing to provide even the most basic treatment for mentally ill prisoners at the Colorado facility. This lawsuit came one month after prison officials were sued over the suicide of an ADX Florence inmate, Jose Martin Vega, who had hanged himself in his cell after allegedly failing to get proper mental health treatment.

The Memo

WHAT'S IN THE MEMO

You can decide for yourself what you think of the tone of the memo. Some of you likely will find it a cruel and patronizing attempt by federal bureaucrats and lawyers to try to cover their asses in anticipation of litigation to come. For example:

Every institution is staffed with psychologists who provide counseling and other supportive mental health services. Anytime you want to speak with a psychologist, let staff know and they will contact Psychology Services to make the necessary arrangements.

Others may find its touchy-feely language particularly odd given the memo's audience. This memo was sent to hundreds of thousands of federal prisoners, including some of the most deadly and violent America currently has in custody. For example:

If you are unable to think of solutions other than suicide, it is not because solutions do not exist; it is because you are currently unable to see them. Do not lose hope. Solutions can be found, feelings change, unanticipated positive events occur. Look for meaning and purpose in educational and treatment programs, faith, work, family and friends.

And then there is this passage, which makes Tom Hanks' "The Green Mile" guard Paul Edgecomb seem like Cool Hand Luke's jailer. Remember, Director Samuels here is speaking to men who live in such detention and isolation -- often as punishment for past conduct in prison -- that they have gone clinically mad from the conditions of their confinement:

You may be reading this message while in a Special Housing Unit or Special Management Unit cell, thinking your life is moving in the wrong direction. But wherever you are, whatever your circumstances, my commitment to you is the same. I want you to succeed.

WHAT'S NOT IN THE MEMO

Each of you may read such things into this memo. But none of you will be able to read it and reasonably conclude that the Bureau of Prisons is planning to help solve the problem by hiring more doctors and psychiatrists. The June civil rights complaint, in the case now styled Bacote v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, alleges that there are only two mental health professionals responsible for the care of 450 prisoners at Supermax. With such a ratio, it's ridiculous to think that even those inmates who want to accept Director Samuels' kind invitation are going to be successful in doing so.

Nor can anyone read the July 20 memo and reasonably conclude that the Bureau of Prisons intends to modify its rules, which prohibit the use of psychotropic drugs in its "Control Units," the most secure detention portions of its prisons. That's the essence of the complaints in both pending cases: The Constitution requires adequate medical treatment, including mental health treatment, but often the inmates who need medicine the most are the ones who cannot by policy and practice get it.

Nor, finally, can anyone read Director Samuels' memo as indicative of a shift in prison policy that will encourage the reporting of staff abuse of mentally ill prisoners.The Bacote complaint alleges that, at ADX Florence, the prison "watchdog" official responsible for investigating allegations of official misconduct is married to the prison official who is responsible for "all correctional functions" at the facility. How could an inmate take Samuels up on his invitation and expect much of a growl from the watchdog?

THE MEMO'S AUDIENCE

Of course, not every federal prisoner is mentally ill. And not every mentally ill prisoner in the federal system has been abused, mistreated, misdiagnosed, or otherwise ignored. If there is one consistent pattern in the allegations of the two pending complaints, it is that federal prisoners tend to get better treatment (and, more important, to get better) when they are transferred away from places like Supermax and toward prisons like MCFP Springfield, in Missouri, which specializes in mental health care.

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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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