There are also federal rules that more broadly govern the responsibility prison officials have to treat the mentally ill prisoners in their care. There are rules that require prison officials to give medicine to prisoners in their care -- yet the ADX prisoners claim they often are not given their medicine or are given the wrong medicine. There are rules for the formal way prison officials are supposed to evaluate the mental health status of incoming prisoners -- the Supermax prisoners allege these evaluations are a joke.
Moreover, many of the plaintiffs in the new lawsuit, as well as the likely future plaintiffs, reside in Supermax's "Control Unit," its most secure unit. This is partially because of the dangerous, violent conduct the prisoners have exhibited in other prisons, or in other wings of Supermax, as a result of their mental illnesses. But the Code of Federal Regulation governing "institutional referrals" to federal prison "Control Units" appears to directly prohibit this.
The "Judicial Administration" section of the Code of Federal Regulations states that the "warden may not refer an inmate for placement in a control unit ... if the inmate shows evidence of significant mental disorder or major physical disabilities as documented in a mental health evaluation or a physical examination." Is schizophrenia a "significant mental disorder"? How about "delusional ideation" or post-traumatic stress disorder? Is it "significant" when a prisoner mutilates himself or tries to commit suicide?
Dostoevsky was right: How we treat our prisoners says more about us than it does about them
The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution prohibits the government from inflicting "cruel and unusual punishment" upon its citizens, even its convicted ones, and especially its mentally ill ones. Over the decades, vast groves of trees have been sacrificed papering prison-related litigation over the meaning of the phrase in the context of medical and mental health care. Some of the lawsuits, filed by inmates and others, has been frivolous. Many, however, have not. None like the one filed Monday has reached a point in litigation where a federal judge has issued a substantive ruling on its merits.
Much of this litigation has involved the conditions and lack of mental health care at state prisons. In Brown v. Plata, for example, decided just last May, the United States Supreme Court narrowly affirmed a lower court order that required California to release thousands of non-violent state prisoners to reduce unconstitutional overcrowding in the Golden State's prison system. The lawsuit was based upon the inability of state prison officials to provide their prisoners with adequate medical and mental health care and treatment.
In his 5-4 majority opinion, which infuriated his conservative colleagues, here is how Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Reagan appointee, described the case's mental health component:
Prisoners in California with serious mental illness do not receive minimal, adequate care. Because of a shortage of treatment beds, suicidal inmates may be held for prolonged periods in telephone-booth sized cages without toilets. A psychiatric expert reported observing an inmate who had been held in such a cage for nearly 24 hours, standing in a pool of his own urine, unresponsive and nearly catatonic. Prison officials explained they had " 'no place to put him.' "
Other inmates awaiting care may be held for months in administrative segregation, where they endure harsh and isolated conditions and receive only limited mental health services. Wait times for mental health care range as high as 12 months. In 2006, the suicide rate in California's prisons was nearly 80% higher than the national average for prison populations; and a court-appointed Special Master found that 72.1% suicides involved "some measure of inadequate assessment, treatment, or intervention, and were therefore most probably foreseeable and/or preventable." (citations omitted by me).
From the high suicide rate to the inadequate "assessment, treatment, or intervention," there are many similarities between the proven facts that compelled Justice Kennedy to side with California's prisoners and the facts alleged in the new complaint against ADX/Supermax. But still we need to look a little further. The leading case in the area, the one closer on point, perhaps, than even the Brown v. Plata case, comes from litigation nearly two decades ago over California's Pelican Bay State Prison.