Supermax: The Faces of a Prison’s Mentally Ill
The Atlantic June 19, 2012
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. (The second in a three-part series.)
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 Supermax whom you likely have never heard of and who have made it to the facility because they have run into trouble at other federal 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 Supermax 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 Supermax. 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.
Part I of this series offered a close look at the story of Jack Powers, a current Supermax inmate who alleges in vivid detail how he went mad in custody because of the mistreatment he received from prison officials. Here, below, is a brief summary of the stories of each of the other 10 prisoners named in the complaint – how they came to Supermax and why they allege that they are owed more from the law than their captors currently provide them. Judge for yourself whether these men should be in this place at this time.
Michael Bacote: He is the first named plaintiff in the case. Age 37, functionally illiterate, and deemed “mildly mentally retarded” a decade ago by a prison psychologist, Bacote was sent to Supermax in 2005 after pleading guilty to murder in a case involving the death of a fellow inmate at the federal prisonin Texas. (Evidently, he did not kill the victim but rather stood guard while others did.) Bacote has been diagnosed as suffering from “major depressive disorder with psychotic features” as well as from “paranoid ideations,” and he also may suffer the after-effects of severe closed-head injury.
Bacote refuses to take medicine that has been ground up from pill form by prison officials. And they, in turn, refuse to allow Bacote to take his medicine in pill form. Bacote has repeatedly tried to transfer out of Supermax. Over and over again, his requests have been denied. Despite the prior diagnoses from prison doctors, for example, paragraph 138 of the complaint alleges that Supermax officials in April 2009 told Bacote that “a review of your file does not indicate you are mentally ill or mentally retarded.”
Harold Cunningham: At age 41, Cunningham is serving a life sentence plus 380 years for a series of crimes, including murders and robberies. In 1996, representing himself in a state trial, he suddenly stabbed a witness – in open court, in front of judge and jury. Long before that incident, Cunningham had been diagnosed with “conduct disorder, under-socialized aggressive needs, and major depression.” Following the courtroom attack, Cunningham was diagnosed by a renown psychiatrist with “paranoid schizophrenia,” “antisocial personality disorder,” and “borderline intellectual function.”
Cunningham arrived at Supermax in 2001, was taken off his existing medication, and was promptly placed in the prison’s ultra-secure Control Unit, a place where prisoners are not permitted to take psychotropic medication. Once, in 2004, he was given a “telepsychiatry” session whereby he was able to speak via video conference with an off-site psychiatrist. During the “session,” Cunningham was allegedly handcuffed from behind with shackles on on his legs and surrounded by corrections officers. He has received no mental health treatment since 2001, the Supermax complaint alleges.
Ernest Norman Shaifer. Age 49, with a family history of mental illness that is both tragic and shocking, Shaifer has been in and out of prison for decades. Long ago diagnosed with bipolar disorder, in 2002 Shaifer attacked a prison chaplain at a nearby federal prison next to Supermax. For that he was prosecuted – and also reevaluated by several mental health experts, each of whom diagnosed him as mentally ill and recommended medication as a treatment for his disorder.
But after Shaifer was sent back to Supermax, he was soon was sent to its Control Unit and thus deprived of any psychotropic medication. As paragraph 165 of the complaint alleges, a Supermax prison psychologist who looked at the Shaifer family’s history of major mental illness – including suicide and murder – decided that the inmate had used that history to “fabricate” his own symptoms. Barring any new incidents, Shaifer is expected to be released from prison in 2014 – having been untreated for over a decade.
Jeremy Pinson. Age 26, with a history of epilepsy, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, he is at Supermax for making threats against the president of the United States and others. When he was first sentenced, Pinson’s trial judge recommended that he serve his sentence at a federal prison designed for mentally ill prisoners. Instead, the Bureau of Prisons assigned Pinson to another prison. Pinson then threatened another official. Again, he was convicted. This time, a federal judge “strongly recommended” that he be sent to a suitable facility. Again, the Bureau of Prisons rejected the recommendation.
Here, from paragraph 182, is a list of the medications Pinson has been given while in custody: “psychotropic medications, including Olanzapine, Quietapine, Risperidone, Fluphenazine, Haldol and Perphenazine, antidepressants Amitriptyline, Bupropion, Mirtazapine and Sertraline, antimanic Depakote, and the anti-anxiety medication Buspirone.” No mentally ill prisoners are supposed to be housed at Supermax pursuant to federal regulations. Yet prison officials there have repeatedly refused to transfer Pinson, who has not received adequate treatment for his illness.
John W. Narducci Jr. Now 43, Narducci was home with his father at the age of four when the latter was shot and killed. At 11, Narducci was with his home alone with his mother when she had a heart attack and died. Since then, Narducci has had a long history of mental illness as well as a litany of violent episodes resulting in arrest, prosecution, and conviction. He has been diagnosed with a “mood disorder” and a “mixed personality disorder.” In prison, he tries to dress like a woman.
As was the case with Pinson, the Bureau of Prisons ignored a judge’s recommendation, in 2000, that Narducci be sent to a federal facility “which has programs sufficient to deal with his mental, emotional and psychological problems.” Instead, Narducci was sent to a successive series of prisons where he lashed out at prisoners and guards. At Supermax now since 2007, Narducci alleges that he has not been treated for his mental illness. Untreated now for nearly five years, he is scheduled to be released in 2015.
THE FUTURE PLAINTIFFS
Marcellus Washington. Age 39, functionally illiterate, mentally retarded, and suffering from the “presence of a congenital brain impairment,” Washington was treated in prison for mental illness as early as 1996. His condition did not improve, and by 2002 he sought medical care for suicidal tendencies. Prison officials did not immediately treat him and Washington shortly thereafter assaulted a prison guard. He was subsequently diagnosed again with mental illness, and he attempted suicide before he was transferred, in 2004, to Supermax.
At Supermax, where he again tried to kill himself, Washington was punished for cutting his wrists with razor blades – but was not treated for his obvious mental illness. Placed into the Control Unit, where no psychotropic medicine is administered by prison staff, Washington has sought repeatedly to obtain mental health treatment. Supermax officials have consistently refused his requests. This is despite earlier prison diagnoses (at other prisons) that he suffers from a “severe antisocial personality disorder.”
William Concepcion Sablan. Age 47, severely mentally ill and suffering from post-traumatic brain injury after he was struck in the head by a machete, Sablan is a career criminal with a long history of arrests and convictions. In 1997, delusional and paranoid, he was diagnosed with “temporal lobe epilepsy” by a prison doctor. Despite this history, in 1999 when he arrived at the federal prison in Florence adjacent to Supermax, Sablan was given only a cursory mental health evaluation and his medication was not checked. A few days later, as the third man in a two-man cell, he killed one of his cellmates.
Mental health evaluations following the murder convinced a federal trial judge in 2004 to find Sablan incompetent to stand trial. But in 2005, Sablan did stand trial, was convicted of murder, and was sentenced by the same judge with a recommendation that he receive significant mental health treatment, including medication. The Bureau of Prisons ignored this recommendation, too, sending Sablan back to the U.S. Penitentiary adjacent to ADX, and then to Supermax itself, where paragraph 261 of the complaint alleges officials have continued to refuse to adequately treat him.
Jaison Leggett. Age 41, seriously mentally ill and with a long history of suicidal ideation, Leggett has been at Supermax since 2002. In 2003, suffering from osteomyelitis in his leg, Leggett refused amputation and instead swallowed a razor blade after cutting into his leg. Later, he was transferred to a federal mental health prison in Missouri where his leg was amputated and he was placed on suicide watch. The prosthetic he received from prison doctors did not fit – so he again tried to cut his leg and then damaged (and swallowed part of) his prosthetic.
Supermax officials have refused to replace his prosthetic. Paragraph 268 of the complaint alleges that prison officials force Leggett to hop around from place to place or simply to crawl on the floor or up and down stairs within the prison. All of this despite a finding, by a prison doctor in 2003, that Leggett suffers from a mental disorder. Prior to 2005, Leggett was routinely treated with psychotropic medicine. Paragraph 275 of the complaint alleges that he has not received this medication since 2005.
David Shelby. At 47, and diagnosed by state prison officials as early as 1989 as suffering from acute psychotic episodes, Shelby has for decades believed that he hears voices, including the voice of God. In 1997, while in federal prison in Atlanta, he attempted to commit “suicide by cop” by taking a prison staff member hostage with a knife. Following the episode, he was repeatedly diagnosed as being mentally ill – and his sentencing judge recommended he be placed somewhere where he could receive mental health treatment.
Once again, the Bureau of Prisons ignored the judge’s recommendation and Shelby was transferred to Supermax and placed within the prison’s general population. In 2009, he again tried to commit suicide and was again diagnosed with mental illness. Later that year, paragraph 296 of the complaint alleges, Shelby says he heard God’s voice telling him to eat a finger. So Shelby amputated his left pinkie, cut the finger into small pieces, added it to a bowl of ramen soup and ate it.
Herbert Isaac Perkins. Age 36, suffering from serious mental illness and perhaps the effects of closed-head injuries, Perkins as a young teenager was on the telephone with his father when his father shot himself in the head and died. Before Perkins came to Supermax in 2008, he was successfully treated at other prisons for with psychotropic medicine. At Supermax, however, he was refused mental health treatment. Predictably, his condition worsened.
In 2008, Perkins tried to commit suicide. After he returned from the hospital, he was placed back in the same cell in which he had made an attempt on his own life – his own blood was still splattered on the floor and the razor he had used to slash his throat was still resting on the sink. Later in the day, Perkins again tried to commit suicide. He was eventually given Zoloft, but then that medicine was revoked. Paragraph 304 of the complaint alleges that until he became involved in the new lawsuit, the Bureau did not provide him with mental health treatment. Instead, he alleges, he has been harassed by prison officials for his involvement in this lawsuit.
This is the second in a three-part series about a new class-action lawsuit filed Monday against the Bureau of Prison and its officials who run ADX-Florence, the “Supermax” facility in Colorado that houses some of the nation’s most dangerous criminals.The first part focused upon the complaint, which alleges the torture, abuse, and neglect of the prison’s mentally ill prisoners. The third installment will focus on some of the legal issues involved in the litigation.