On June 18, 2012, ADX-Florence supermax inmate plaintiffs Michael Bacote, Harold Cunningham, John W. Narducci, Jr., Jeremy Pinson, and Ernest Norman Shaifer, filed a lawsuit against six prison officials and the Bureau of Prisons, “seeking declaratory and injunctive relief requiring the Federal Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”) to comply with its existing policies regarding the treatment of mentally ill prisoners, and with the requirements of the Eighth Amendment regarding medical treatment for United States citizens and others who have been committed to its custody.”

A photo of Florence-ADX Supermax prison behind massive fences.

ADX-Florence Supermax Prison (Photo: US Bureau of Prisons / Wikimedia Commons).

There are six levels of security in the Federal prison system. While many of these prisons have “Special Housing Units (SHUs) that are in effect jails within the walls of the prison (ie the SHU in Pelican Bay), in the case of ADX-Florence, the entire prison is a supermax detention facility. ADX Florence is the only Level Six prison in the country, and for this reason, it is often called “The Alcatraz of the Rockies.” However, Florence is in some ways worse, because at least Alcatraz had bars, whereas ADX- Florence is nothing but concrete and steel, which compounds the mentally crippling sensory deprivation treatment. In other words, some would argue that the conditions on death row are better than the conditions in supermax.

ADX Florence currently houses approximately 450 men. These men were not ordered to supermax by any jury, team of psychiatrists, doctors or judges. They were placed there due to decisions on the part of BOP staff, and sometimes the decisions are on a whim and totally without regard to the inmate’s mental illness. The detention length is beyond what would pass for a brief stay to correct a bad inmate behavior and can extend into many months or even years.

5. The BOP’s deliberate indifference to the proper diagnosis and treatment of ADX prisoners with serious mental illnesses has resulted in horrible consequences. Many prisoners at ADX interminably wail, scream, and bang on the walls of their cells. Some mutilate their bodies with razors, shards of glass, sharpened chicken bones, writing utensils, and whatever other objects they can obtain. A number swallow razor blades, nail clippers, parts of radios and
televisions, broken glass, and other dangerous objects. Others carry on delusional conversations with voices they hear in their heads, oblivious to reality and to the danger that such behavior might pose to themselves and anyone who interacts with them. Still others spread feces and other human waste and body fluids throughout their cells, throw it at the correctional staff and otherwise create health hazards at ADX. Suicide attempts are common; many have been successful.

Michael Bacote has a history of mental illness that is compounded by his prolonged detention in ADX. He:

suffers from severe Major Depressive Disorder with
Psychotic Features and also exhibits some symptoms of PTSD. He is also mentally retarded, functionally illiterate, and may be suffering the long-term effects of a serious closed head injury.

Mr. Bacote has an IQ of 61, reads at a second-grade level, and believes that the staff has conspired to kill him:

33. At various times, Mr. Bacote has alleged that he has a list of the addresses of BOP staff members who seek to kill him, and that staff members have passed him “street knives” hidden in his food.

134. Mr. Bacote has accused staff psychiatrists of diagnosing him with bipolar disorder as an attempt to make his eventual murder appear to be a suicide.

Mr. Cunningham also has a list of mental illnesses that date back to childhood. He is serving a life sentence and has been at ADX since 2001:

155. Without his medications, Mr. Cunningham’s behavior predictably worsened over the next several years. Mr. Cunningham was cited for, among other things, refusing to leave his cell, refusing to submit to restraints, possession of weapons, and assault on corrections officers. Mr. Cunningham was held in an isolation cell in the Control Unit from 2002 to 2007. During
this time, he was assaulted by corrections officers and frequently shackled to his bed, sometimes for days or weeks at a time.

Mr. Powers (listed in the suit as an “interested party”) also remains in ADX with untreated mental illness. Mr. Powers had no issues with mental illness in his upbringing and background; he developed severe mental illness in supermax:

226. Four months later, on December 3, 2009, Mr. Powers bit off his pinkie.
227. In 2009 and 2010 Mr. Powers covered most of his body with tattoos that he calls “Avatar Stripes,” which are visible in the photograph attached as Exhibit 7. He created his tattoos by slicing thousands of tiny slits into his skin with a razor blade and rubbing carbon paper dust into the slits.
228. On December 20, 2010, Mr. Powers amputated his scrotum and attempted to
suture the wound himself.

The prison system plays fast and loose with the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, by employing a myriad of end-run tactics, such as summarily claiming that the inmate did not exhaust all of the administrative remedies available before initiating a suit, or by moving the inmate suddenly to a different facility.

The term “exhausting all administrative remedies” is a euphemism for filing grievances that go nowhere, submitting requests that are ignored or sent to the “wrong department” and writing letters that also go nowhere. Exhausting all remedies can also be expensive, depending on how much money is removed from inmates’ books for visits to wrong departments that do nothing, and for stamps and paper for letters. How can an inmate with an IQ of 61 who cannot read and who thinks there are street knives in his food…how can such an inmate “exhaust all administrative remedies? He cannot. Plus, if he gets a jailhouse lawyer to help him, he will likely be considered a nuisance and shipped to the next abusive facility, where he will be required to start the grievance process over- a process that he is incapable of starting, let alone completing.

Here is the lawsuit.

The men make a very reasonable request simply to be treated in a humane manner while they serve their time. This will be a case to follow.

Here are some must-read articles:

The Atlantic -An American Gulag: Descending into Madness at Supermax

This article is the first of a three-part series. It has a photo of Mr. Powers, showing the results of his self-mutilation on his body as a result of prolonged entombment in ADX, and it discusses the lawsuit.

The New YorkerThe Caging of America

America currently incarcerates more people than Stalin’s gulag. An excellent article on mass incarceration in America.