On Monday, the president told his audience that he hoped mental illness would be treated as quickly and resolutely as physical illnesses. "The brain is a body part, too," he said. "We just know less about it." Yet such candid acknowledgments that mental illness is as real as any physical malady is precisely what is not happening in our prisons. I bet the president doesn't even know that when federal judges recommend mental health prisons for patently ill inmates the BOP often countermands those judicial recommendations. There aren't supposed to be mentally ill prisoners at Supermax. But there are.
And if the president wants to start by reversing the nation's grim prison policies, I suggest he reach out right away, now, this week, to a woman named Linda Embrack, the grieving mother of a mentally ill son who also resides in the federal prison in Florence. Embrack has done everything the president said Monday that a family member should do when confronted with the mental illness of a loved one. She has begged for help. She has raised the question. And, in response, Embrack's government, in the form of the Bureau of Prisons, has treated her as though she were an annoyance.
Letter from Linda Embrack to Judge James Kirk, April 28, 2010
Her son, Jonathan Francisco, was initially sent to the federal prison in Pollack, Louisiana, for unlawful weapons possessions. While there, he murdered another inmate and, as a result, late in 2011, was sent to the federal prison in Colorado. The Constitution, federal statutory law, and federal prison policies all require that he be treated humanely. But there is little evidence that this is occurring. Last month, in fact, Francisco's name and grim story were added to a federal complaint in a civil rights case in federal court in Denver asserting that prison officials are violating the Eighth Amendment rights of mentally ill prisoners.
What follows are only allegations at this point. The Bureau of Prisons has not yet responded to the claims asserted by Francisco's lawyers. But these allegations raise obvious questions about the way in which mental illness is treated in our federal prisons. And they beg a candid response from a president who said Monday that confronting mental illness "requires all of us to act." From the complaint:
Mr. Francisco arrived at ADX in late 2011. Shortly after his arrival, other prisoners in the ADX SHU began to notice his bizarre behavior. Among other things, he has not spoken a word to anyone in the nearly 18 months since arriving at ADX; rather, he spends all day, every day, staring at the wall of his cell. He frequently defecates on the floor of his cell or on a food tray, and smears his feces on himself, his cell or his other surroundings. He ignores other prisoners' attempts to help him, does not communicate with staff, and makes no effort to maintain his health or hygiene. As a result, he lives in squalor, rarely eats and is showered only when ADX staff members force him into a shower enclosure.
Plaintiffs' counsel learned about Mr. Francisco from other prisoners in late 2011, and began investigating his background. A review of court filings revealed a letter that his mother sent to his original sentencing judge in 2010 noting that when she visited Mr. Francisco on March 7, 2010, his hair was matted, he was "very underweight," he appeared to be "over medicated," he "couldn't talk," his balance was "unstable," and he "appeared unable to recognize [his mother] and his little sister [S]halina."
When contacted by Plaintiffs' counsel, Mr. Francisco's mother provided a power of attorney signed by Mr. Francisco before his incarceration, and pursuant to that power of attorney signed an engagement letter with Plaintiffs' counsel's firm and a Privacy Act waiver authorizing counsel to request a copy of Mr. Francisco's BOP file pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"). Counsel repeatedly requested that file, but BOP initially refused to acknowledge Mr. Francisco's power of attorney and has as-yet refused to produce his file.
Mr. Francisco has also failed to respond to counsel's requests for an interview, upon information and belief because he no longer comprehends even simple correspondence. Under the circumstances, although the overwhelming evidence suggests that Mr.Francisco is in profound and obvious psychiatric distress that is being completely ignored by the BOP and ADX staff, Plaintiffs' counsel has not, as yet, secured access to the records necessary to assist him, other than to put BOP on notice of his obvious distress. Upon information and belief, Mr. Francisco lacks the mental capacity to even attempt to advocate for himself through the ADX administrative remedy process. Upon information and belief is currently receiving no mental health care of any kind.
Francisco is convicted criminal. But he is also a human being. If President Obama is serious about changing the nation's conversation about mental illness he will have the courage to look this man's mother in the eye and tell her that his administration, his Bureau of Prisons, isn't doing enough to treat her son. He will tell Embrack that no mother, not the mother of a convict nor the mother of an honor student, should ever have to beg officials to provide the mental health care and treatment the law requires them to provide.