Federal Judge Criticizes Supermax Confinement in Colorado

Last week we wrote about a trial beginning in Federal District Court in Denver, in which Troy Anderson, a prisoner with mental illness, is challenging his twelve years of solitary confinement at the Colorado State Penitentiary. The lawsuit, filed by student lawyers at the University of Denver Law School’s Civil Right Clinic, could have broad significance because it argues that the long-term isolation of mentally ill prisoners as it is practiced at CSP violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as the Constitution’s guarantee of due process and its ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The always excellent Alan Prendergast, who writes for Denver’s Westword and has been following Troy Anderson and his lawsuit for years, is covering the trial, and yesterday provided a detailed report on what seems to shaping up as a promising case for the plaintiffs–and for all opponents of long-term solitary.

After nearly five days of testimony in a lawsuit brought by Troy Anderson, a prisoner who’s been in solitary confinement for twelve years, a Denver federal judge was strongly urging Colorado Department of Corrections officials to fix the harshest conditions at the state’s supermax prison — before he has to do it for them. “It shouldn’t take a federal judge to write an opinion and embarrass the department in the public eye to get this accomplished,” U.S. District Judge Brooke Jackson said.

Jackson’s remarks, suggesting that there might have to be some drastic changes in the way the Colorado State Penitentiary operates, came midway through testimony in the case brought by Anderson, a state inmate serving what amounts to a life sentence for charges from two shootouts with police in the late 1990s. Anderson, who’s been diagnosed with mental illnesses ranging from ADHD to “intermittent explosive disorder,” has been confined at CSP since 2000 — deprived of direct sunlight or outdoor recreation, books (he’s allowed two a year), and, he claims, the medications that might actually help him control his behavior, reduce his sentence and get him placed back int the general prison population…

Anderson’s attorneys contend that the supermax fails to provide adequate treatment for mentally ill inmates — who, deprived of medication, exercise and socialization, deteriorate in solitary confinement. Inmates can also receive negative write-ups, or “chrons,” from guards that help keep them in segregation, even though they have no opportunity to contest the information.

The article–which needs to be read in full–reports on testimony by other CSP prisoners–delivered remotely by video–and by former CSP warden Susan Jones, who insisted that Anderson was where he belonged, .

Breaking into an unusual colloquy with Jones when she was on the stand, Jackson said he was troubled by the lack of meaningful administrative review and the absence of due process in the use of negative “chrons” to keep inmates in solitary for years. “It doesn’t seem fair to me,” he declared. And some of the other conditions described by inmates, if true, were clearly “inhumane” in his view.

The trial is expected to end next week, but it may be several weeks before the judge hands down his ruling. You can follow Alan Prendergast’s reporting here.

James Ridgeway and Jean Casella

James Ridgeway (1936-2021) was the founder and co-director of Solitary Watch. An investigative journalist for over 60 years, he served as Washington Correspondent for the Village Voice and Mother Jones, reporting domestically on subjects ranging from electoral politics to corporate malfeasance to the rise of the racist far-right, and abroad from Central America, Northern Ireland, Eastern Europe, Haiti, and the former Yugoslavia. Earlier, he wrote for The New Republic and Ramparts, and his work appeared in dozens of other publications. He was the co-director of two films and author of 20 books, including a forthcoming posthumous edition of his groundbreaking 1991 work on the far right, Blood in the Face. Jean Casella is the director of Solitary Watch. She has also published work in The Guardian, The Nation, and Mother Jones, and is co-editor of the book Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement. She has received a Soros Justice Media Fellowship and an Alicia Patterson Fellowship. She tweets @solitarywatch.

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