Our latest piece over at Mother Jones concerns an important trial beginning today in Federal District Court in Denver, in which a prisoner with mental illness is challenging more than a decade in solitary confinement in the Colorado State Penitentiary. Also included is background on the groundbreaking work of the University of Denver’s Civil Rights Clinic; on the use of solitary confinement to warehouse the mentally ill; and on recent challenges to solitary in the state of Colorado. What follows is the beginning of the article; you can read the full piece on MotherJones.com.
Troy Anderson lives in Cañon City, a high desert town in a dramatic setting at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. But for more than a decade he has neither seen those mountains nor felt the sun on his skin. He spends 23 hours out of each day confined to an 8 x 12 isolation cell at the Colorado State Penitentiary (CSP)—one of the state’s supermax prisons—and the remaining hour in a bare exercise room. Well over half of his 42 years have been spent behind bars, most of them in what prison authorities euphemistically call “administrative segregation.” In practice, this means Anderson will remain in solitary confinement until prison officials feel it’s time to let him out.
Anderson has been in and out of jail since he was a juvenile on account of his erratic and sometimes violent behavior. In 2000, he was sentenced to 75 years for myriad charges stemming from two incidents in which he shot at police, the second time in an attempt to escape custody. Offenses committed in prison have landed him in “ad seg” at CSP. (His last disciplinary infraction was in 2005, when he was written up for somehow managing to get envelopes to another prisoner.)
But there’s more to the story. Anderson, like hundreds of other prisoners confined in isolation in Colorado—and thousands held in solitary across the nation—is seriously mentally ill. His diagnoses include bipolar disorder, intermittent explosive disorder, cognitive disorders, and a seizure disorder. He has attempted suicide many times, starting at age 10. He is seen periodically by prison psychiatrists, all of whom seem to concur that he needs therapy and medication. At CSP, however, his treatment has consisted of a fiasco of intermittent and inappropriate meds and scant therapy, typically conducted through a slot in his solid steel cell door.
Yet unlike most of those other prisoners languishing in solitary, Anderson is about to get his day in federal court. Beginning today, in a trial that could have broad implications for how states handle inmates with mental illness, Anderson’s lawyers will argue before the District Court in Denver that their client’s predicament violates his civil rights, under both the Constitution and federal law.
It was his untreated mental illness that first landed him at CSP, Anderson contends, and now the same symptoms are keeping him there indefinitely. Without proper treatment, he is unable to convince corrections officials that he’s fit for the general prison population. This Catch-22, his lawyers say, condemns him to an effective life sentence under conditions that are increasingly being denounced as a form of torture—particularly when applied to mentally ill prisoners.
Read the rest here.