Supermax: The Faces of a Prison’s Mentally Ill


In a lawsuit filed yesterday, these inmates at America‘s most famous and secure prison allege a cycle of abuse and madness, neglect, and retribution.

Andrew Cohen

 

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Index of Photographic Exhibits to Plaintiffs’ Complaint, Bacote, et al v. United States Bureau of Prisons, et Al.

 

You don’t get to be an inmate at ADX-Florence, America’s most famous and secure prison, without having first achieved a measure of infamy in the nation’s penal system. Name a convicted terrorist, foreign or domestic, and there is a strong likelihood that he is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole at the maximum security federal facility in southern Colorado. Terry Nichols. Ramzi Yousef. Ted Kaczynski. Zacarious Moussaoui. Eric Robert Rudolph. Richard Reid. They are all there — all the eggs in one basket, you might say.

But there are hundreds of other prisoners at the federal prison complex known to the world as “ADX” or “Supermax” you likely have never heard of and who have made it to the facility because they have run into trouble at other prisons around the nation. The Aryan Brotherhood is represented at the prison, for example, and so are members of other notorious prison gangs. As a prisoner, you may be assigned to Supermax if you attack another inmate, or if you injure a guard, or if prison officials otherwise believe you present a particular threat to prison staff or other inmates.

Each of five prisoners named as plaintiffs in a new civil rights case filed Monday against the Bureau of Prisons fall into this category. So do the six other inmates whose stories are chronicled in the long complaint, which alleges that prison officials are failing or refusing to adequately diagnose and treat mentally ill prisoners in their care. In some cases, these men were mentally ill, or retarded, before they came to Colorado. In other cases, the inhumane treatment of the men has made them mad, or at least exacerbated their preexisting mental health problems.

The lawsuit, styled Bacote v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, seeks to force the federal officials to provide better mental health care for these inmates. But the litigation also raises fundamental questions about how the Bureau of Prisons treats these men. They are felons, violent felons in most cases, but even so they are entitled to be treated in a humane way by government officials. The Eighth Amendment, with its prescription against “cruel and unusual punishment,” commands this. And so do explicit federal laws and policies.

No evaluation of this new case, or of the fate of America’s mentally ill prisoners more generally, can be complete without a look into the narratives of the lives of the men who are being punished in this fashion. It is a haunting view. Their madness begets cruelty and indifference from prison officials and doctors. And the cruelty and indifference from the officials and doctors begets more madness. In the meantime, the American taxpayer pays for all of it; the alleged abuse and neglect, and even torture, is done in our name.

In our name — but not necessarily done for our own good. “One common misconception about ADX is that everybody there is never getting out of prison. That’s not true, and it’s one of the main problems with failing to treat the mentally ill while they are there,” says Ed Aro, a partner at Arnold & Porter, the venerable law firm that brought the lawsuit, along with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. Aro adds:

We currently represent almost 50 inmates who are or recently have been housed at ADX. One is already in the community and was released with no transitional assistance whatsoever. 11 more will be released within 5 years, 18 within 10 years and 28 within 20 years. Without treatment, these people will have a very difficult time reentering society safely and successfully.

Continue Reading @ The Atlantic

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