Should Mentally Ill Federal Prisoners Be Punished for Suicide Attempts?

Last summer, the Bureau of Prisons told inmates to seek help if they were feeling suicidal. But when inmate Percy Barron reached out, help wasn't what he wound up getting.

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An interior at a Supermax prison in Connecticut (Steve Miller/AP)

Last July, after a wrongful death lawsuit was filed by the family of a mentally ill prisoner who hanged himself in his cell at ADX-Florence in Colorado, the Director of the Bureau of Prisons sent all federal inmates a "suicide prevention" memo. In it, he urged them to seek "help" if their feelings of "sadness, anxiety, fear, loneliness, anger, or shame" left them with suicidal thoughts. He told them, too, that he wanted them to "succeed" in prison. Directly from the desk of Director Charles E. Samuels Jr., the memo stated:

Anytime you want to speak with a psychologist, let staff know and they will contact Psychology Services to make the necessary arrangements. Psychologists are not the only Bureau staff available to provide you support. Your unit officer, counselor or case manager, work supervisor, teacher, and treatment special are available to speak with you and provide assistance, as are the other staff in the institution, including recreation specialists and lieutenants. Help is available.

One prisoner who got the memo was Percy Barron, another inmate at the Colorado prison. His attorneys say that he did precisely what Samuels asked him to do, which is to ask for help when feeling suicidal. What happened? Nothing good. Distraught over the death of his mother, Barron was not given any timely treatment -- his requests were ignored -- so he swallowed a bunch of over-the counter and prescription pills that he had in his cell. Then, after he was rescued by the prison's medical staff, Barron was disciplined for the suicide attempt.

I'm told by Barron's attorneys that the discipline of their client was withdrawn after they complained about it. But the gulf between what Samuels promised in his memo and what is happening inside our federal prisons evidently still exists. For example, here is the link to the BOP's "inmate discipline" policies. What the rules show is that federal officials moved in 2011 to "increase the severity level for tattooing and self-mutilation to a high severity level prohibited act." In other words, inmate conduct frequently accompanied by mental illness is being punished more severely.

Meanwhile, Barron is not alone. Another federal inmate in Colorado, Jack Powers, whose gruesome story we chronicled last year in The Atlantic, was recently disciplined by prison officials for cutting off his earlobes -- acts of self-mutilation that are part of his long-diagnosed mental illness. Powers was written up with an "incident report" and lost "good time' on his record -- meaning that he lost credit for days off his prison sentence (there is no parole in the federal system). His underlying mental illness? It still hasn't been adequately treated.

Last Monday via email, I asked David Berkebile, the warden at ADX-Florence, to help me understand what the prison's policies are with respect to mentally ill prisoners who seek help, don't get it, and then hurt themselves. I asked him how he could square the treatment of Barron and Powers with the terms of Samuels' "suicide prevention" memo. I asked him what policy justified the punishment of mentally ill federal prisoners. I have not yet received a response from Berkebile -- or from the Justice Department.

Presented by

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

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