Abuse of Prisoners with Mental Illness in the Federal Supermax Addressed by Settlement

The Administrative Maximum (ADX) Facility in Florence, Colorado is the highest security prison in the federal prison system. This supermax prison engages in extreme forms of isolation that are dangerous and harmful to the men held there. After more than four years of litigation, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee and Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP reached a settlement with the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The settlement requires the BOP to, in all but a few special cases, ensure that men with serious mental illnesses are not confined to ADX and the men who remain, whether seriously mentally ill or not, will have access to expanded programming and monitoring of their condition and care.

adx5Prisoners in ADX are held for years, and in some cases decades, without any meaningful human contact in cells the size of a parking space. In the Control Unit, the most restrictive confinement in the facility, conditions for mentally ill prisoners are exacerbated by a rule forbidding the administration of psychotropic medications. The consequences of this inhumane treatment caused prisoners to engage in horrific self-harm. One man ate his finger while guards watched and laughed. Others cut their faces and put flies in the wounds, self-castrated, or pushed objects into their urethras. Some prisoners who entered the facility without mental illness went into crisis because of the conditions. After hearing the testimony of a dozen prisoners, the Court approved the settlement and described the conditions as ranging from “disturbing to disgusting.”

The settlement requires the BOP to create three special units in existing facilities for men with serious mental illness and high security needs to help avoid the placement of prisoners with mental illness in ADX. The Court has appointed monitors who will conduct independent investigations to ensure that the BOP is following its obligations under the settlement.

ADX will continue to be a harsh and forbidding place to be confined. But, as a result of these critical changes, prisoners will no longer be forced to face conditions, as prisoner Carlton Dunbar described them, where people are left “[b]anging, kicking, throwing feces, cutting themselves…people biting their fingers off. Every day…You would never expect it, being locked up anywhere in America.”

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