On Monday, June 18th, a class action lawsuit, Bacote v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, was filed against the Federal Bureau of Prisons on behalf of five plaintiffs, all of them inmates at the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum–commonly known as ADX–in Florence, Colorado. A must-read three-part series of articles by Andrew Cohen, published this week by The Atlantic, covers details of the lawsuit and the treatment of prisoners with mental illness living inside the facility.
In the first two articles in the series, Cohen excellently summarizes the lawsuit as well as emphasizing the horrific conditions in which mentally ill inmates at ADX languish. The lawsuit maintains that the five plaintiffs, along with six other “interested individuals” housed in ADX, all have mental illness or mental retardation, and have been denied adequate treatment. The details regarding their treatment, or lack thereof, are shocking, and outlined in graphic detail. Tragically, the gruesome descriptions may have a familiar ring for those versed in the treatment of mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement in supermax prisons and special housing units across the country.
Cohen quotes from the lawsuit: “Prisoners interminably wail, scream and bang on the walls of their cells. Some mutilate their bodies with razors, shards of glass, writing utensils and whatever other objects they can obtain. Some swallow razor blades, nail clippers, parts of radios and televisions, broken glass and other dangerous objects.”
Another section of the lawsuit states that “in 2010, a severely and chronically depressed prisoner who had attempted to kill himself a few months earlier was escorted to the ADX [Special Housing Unit] after throwing milk at a corrections officer. He was placed in a cell just vacated by another chronically ill prisoner who had smeared the cell’s floors, walls, bed and mattress with feces. The prisoner was given no cleaning supplies, and was not issued a blanket, towel or sheet. He used a roll of toilet paper in the cell to try to wipe the feces off of a spot on the floor that was large enough to enable him to lie down. For two days, he remained lying on that single ‘clean’ space.”
ADX, known as “Alcatraz of the Rockies,” is the nation’s most secure supermax prison, and its 490 residents live in extreme isolation. It is supposedly intended to hold the “worst of the worst,” and is never supposed to house the seriously mentally ill, according to Bureau of Prisons policy. However, individuals with mental illness often end up there or, argues the lawsuit, become mentally ill during their confinement at ADX, largely due to the isolation and deprivation suffered there.
The third article in the series focuses on the lawsuit and The Eighth Amendment. The lawsuit does not seek monetary damages for the plaintiffs; rather, it calls for an injunction to improve the treatment of inmates with mental illness in federal facilities. Cohen highlights one of the most salient problems with the United States prison system: the profound lack of accountability or oversight. While the Federal Bureau of Prisons website states that it “protects society by confining offenders in the controlled environments of prisons and community-based facilities that are safe, humane, cost-efficient, and appropriately secure, and that provide work and other self-improvement opportunities to assist offenders in becoming law-abiding citizens,” the rapidly increasing public concern over abuses inside federal facilities reflects the abject failure of the BOP to uphold its commitment.
The lawsuit was filed during the same week as the Congressional hearing on solitary confinement, and directly contradicts some of the testimony provided by BOP head Charles Samuels. Solitary confinement is being examined with unprecedented scrutiny on a federal level, and, as Cohen notes, this particular lawsuit was filed by attorneys and organizations who have experience and expertise in prison reform litigation, including the DC Prisoners’ Project of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and the law firm of Arnold & Porter. Solitary Watch will continue to report on emerging developments.