Federal Judge Refuses to Dismiss Supermax Abuse Lawsuits

Mentally ill prisoners at America's most famous prison win the day in court -- but still have a long way to go to get the relief they've requested.

Steven Saint/Reuters

In a rebuke to the Obama Administration, a noted federal judge in Denver Tuesday refused to dismiss two pending civil rights lawsuits filed last year against Bureau of Prisons' officials accused of the widespread abuse and neglect of mentally ill federal inmates at the sprawling ADX-Florence prison facility in Colorado. If the allegations of the detailed complaint are true, said U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch, "you don't need to be a psychiatrist to know something is wrong" inside Supermax, America's most famous prison.

The judge's order keeps alive for now Vega v. Davis, a wrongful death action brought in May 2012 by the family of Jose Martin Vega, an inmate in Colorado who hanged himself in his cell in 2010 following what plaintiffs' lawyers say was an extend period of mental illness left untreated by prison staff. Judge Matsch also permitted to proceed further toward trial a case styled Cunningham v. Bureau of Prisons, a broader civil rights challenge alleging longtime patterns of abuse and neglect of the mentally ill at America's most famous federal prison.

The essence of both cases is that federal prison officials at ADX-Florence are violating the rights of mentally ill inmates to be free from "cruel and unusual punishment" under the Eighth Amendment. The inmates allege that they have been tortured and abused by their jailors and deprived of basic medical and mental health needs by prison doctors. Many of the inmates have taken to self-mutilation in their cells, while mental health counseling remains sporadic and ineffective. ''Why shouldn't we be addressing that?" Judge Matsch asked early in the hearing.

The judge dismissed one of the claims in the Vega case and ruled that prison officials named in the Cunningham complaint could not be sued in their personal capacities. He also ordered the attorneys for the plaintiffs to narrow the scope of their main complaint, which the judge described as a "polemic against the Bureau of Prisons." I "didn't need to be hit over the head that hard" to get the point," Judge Matsch told the inmates' attorneys. He said he wanted to "shake this case up" by focusing upon its core constitutional issues.

And he did so by repeatedly expressing skepticism about the claims made by government attorneys. Mentally ill inmates can get better, suggested Justice Department lawyer Amy Padden. Bound "in a control unit?" shot back Judge Matsch. At another point, the judge asked rhetorically: "Are we having people going mad down in Florence" because they aren't being treated in accordance with the Eighth Amendment? In his view, the Cunningham litigation will proceed on two legal theories: that prison officials are failing to follow their own regulations; and that the regulations are inadequate to provide the inmates with basic constitutional rights.

During the 75-minute-long hearing, which took place in a federal courtroom in Denver, Judge Matsch quickly made it clear that he rejected the written arguments made by Justice Department lawyers who had asserted in their briefs that the inmates had not alleged enough relevant facts to prove they had been harmed by prison policies. "I am very concerned about what is happening to these people" at the prison, the judge told Padden. Based upon the allegations, he added at another point, "the need for medical treatment is obvious."

Judge Matsch's procedural rulings do not guarantee that the plaintiffs will prevail. Indeed, the judge warned the attorneys for the inmates that they still face many legal procedural and substantive hurdles to relief. But the judge's orders mean that prison officials now are subject to extensive pretrial discovery and will have to turn over to the plaintiffs' lawyers thousands of pages of prisons records -- as well as submit to their own sworn depositions. All sides indicated that additional plaintiffs are likely to be added to the main case as a result of this discovery.

Before the hearing, federal prison officials announced that they were already considering a change to one of the disputed policies at the Florence facility. One of the allegations of the main complaint is that prison policy precludes the use of psychotropic medicine on mentally ill prisoners in the control unit at Florence. The failure to dispense this medicine to inmates who need it most, the plaintiffs' lawyers allege, guarantees that those inmates will remain mentally ill, or see their mental conditions worsen, the longer they stay in that unit.

This piece is another in The Atlantic's continuing series An American Gulag.