Prison Officials Finally Agree to Transfer Floridly Psychotic Inmate

It took years of extreme mental illness, and federal court supervision, for Jonathan Francisco to finally get help.
Jonathan Francisco as a child with his mother, Linda Embrack, and as an adult (Linda Embrack)

Government shutdown notwithstanding, Justice Department lawyers came to federal court in Colorado yesterday to defend the Bureau of Prisons against an "emergency motion." The lawyers who had filed the motion represented some of the inmates at ADX-Florence, the "Supermax" facility that houses some of the nation's most notorious prisoners. Turns out, there wasn't much of a defense to offer.

Here is the link to the brief filed by the lawyers on behalf of inmate Jonathan Francisco. When confronted with a floridly psychotic inmate eating his own feces -- the manifestation of severe mental illness occurring day after day, month after month -- the BOP did little more than place sandbags around his cell to reduce the odor of excrement. Here are the astonishing key paragraphs from the plaintiff's motion:
 

As demonstrated in the attached declarations and other evidence, for nearly five years Francisco has displayed a persistent pattern of bizarre and worrisome signs and symptoms suggesting that he suffers from a severe and worsening mental illness. During that time, he has been almost entirely mute, speaking very little, if any, to anyone, including family members with whom he previously had a close relationship. He spends most of his time standing with his face very near a wall, staring blankly at the surface before him.

He also obsessively hoards and handles his own feces, placing it on food trays, rolling it into balls, making sculptures out of it, and smearing it on his walls and sometimes on his body or in his hair. He has repeatedly defecated in common-use shower facilities, and on at least one occasion has been seen consuming his feces. In addition, he often has little if any personal property in his cell, frequently sleeps without even a mattress, and continuously lives in unsanitary conditions verging on squalor.

Despite all of this, BOP records reflect that he receives no meaningful ongoing mental health treatment; instead, the BOP's mental health professionals essentially ignore him. The available evidence suggests that the BOP's response to his situation, thus far, has been to occasionally force him into a shower stall, and to pile sandbags outside his door in a futile effort to prevent the overwhelming smell of feces emanating from his cell from spreading throughout the part of the prison where he lives.

The government lawyers didn't say much in response to this motion. They did not try to defend BOP practices or policies. Instead, they quickly assured a grim-faced U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch that the forms for Francisco's transfer to the federal mental health prison at Springfield, Missouri, already had been filled out and that he would be moved for treatment at the end of next week. Judge Matsch reasonably asked why the process was taking so long. Indeed, that's a question that goes beyond yesterday's hearing.


I wrote about the manifestations of Francisco's mental illness four months ago, in early June, and since that time, the Bureau of Prisons has done nothing to help Francisco. Another mentally ill inmate at ADX-Florence, a man named Robert Gerald Knott, committed suicide at the facility in early September and the Bureau of Prisons did nothing to help Francisco. There has been civil rights litigation pending now for nearly 18 months and the BOP has done nothing to help Francisco. Prison officials promised Congress long ago that there were adequate mental health programs at ADX-Florence and no one helped Francisco.

Tuesday's acknowledgement by the government that Francisco needs help and finally will get it surely comes as a relief to his mother, Linda Embrack, who has tried for five years to get treatment for her obviously ill son. In April 2010, for example, she wrote a heartbreaking letter to a federal magistrate judge chronicling her son's descent into madness in prison. "Very uncharacteristic of Jonathan to stop writing or calling," she told the judge, describing how her only son’s appearance had become disheveled, his hair matted, as he grew unable to speak and or recognize his own mother.

I spoke Wednesday morning with Embrack. Naturally, she is pleased with yesterday's news.  "I'm so excited. I thank God for this," she said. She told me that Francisco first became ill in 2008. "The people said that he was just playing but I knew that he wasn't just playing." At ADX-Florence, she alleges, prison officials "were doing everything they could to hide Jonathan." But they can't hide him any longer. If he makes it to next week, if he makes it Springfield, he will have a chance at a life of sanity, and dignity, even if it's still a life behind bars.

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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