Callous and Inhumane Treatment — Even Torture – of Federal Prisoners With Mental Illnesses, Suit Alleges. Where’s The Outrage?

Currently, BOP [the federal Bureau of Prisons] turns a blind eye to the needs of the mentally ill at ADX and to deplorable conditions of confinement that are injurious, callous and inhumane to those prisoners. No civilized society treats its mentally disabled citizens with a comparable level of deliberate indifference to their plight.  [First paragraph of lawsuit.]

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons is being sued in a class-action lawsuit for allegedly abusing, neglecting and, in some cases, torturing prisoners with mental illnesses being housed in the federal government’s most strict penitentiary. The lawsuit was filed by Ed Aro, a partner at the Washington D.C. law firm, Arnold and Porter, and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

Allegations in lawsuits are exactly that — allegations. The BOP’s attorneys will file a response in a few weeks. But if the charges are true, then the public should be outraged and the BOP should be forced to mend its ways.

The five prisoners named in the class action suit, along with six other “interested individuals,” all have “severe mental illnesses.” One also is “mentally retarded.” All are being held at the BOP’s SUPERMAX penitentiary in Florence, Colorado, also known as the “Alcatraz of the Rockies.” They were moved there after they had violent run-ins with other prisoners or with correctional officers.

The lawsuit contends that the prisoners do not receive adequate medical care and often are punished because of their mental disorders. The Supermax prison holds 450 inmates, but only has two psychologists and both of them are also required to perform routine correctional duties. What this means is that inmates are supposed to confide and trust the psychologists even though the two officers also serve stints in guard towers, participate in the forced removal of inmates from cells and — while armed with clubs  — help transport prisoners. This duo-role, the suit contends, causes inmates who are mentally ill to not trust the psychologists.

In addition, the suit contents that inmates with mental disorders often are punished by officers informally because the prisoners are difficult to control.

In some cases, staff turn the simple (although cruel and unusual) refusal to feed a prisoner into a deceptive hoax. Prisoners, including those in four point restraints, sometimes are put on a disciplinary ‘sack lunch’ nutrition program in which they are fed not standard prison trays but a paper bag containing a sandwich or two and a piece of fruit.

Many mentally ill prisoners at ADX  (high security unit) – who are placed on sack lunch restriction – have received sacks (suitably videotaped) being delivered to their cells. But when they open the bags (off camera), they sometimes are empty. Through this ruse ADX staff produce false video evidence of feeding, raising  (if only for a minute)  the prisoner’s hope for basic nutrition, then smash the often-chained and always hungry prisoner’s hopes with a bag of air.

 As a result of this type of abuse, other prisoners in nearby cells and ranges are often subject to the shrieking and suffering of prisoners. 

Another way prisoners with mental problems are unofficially punished, the suit alleges, is by being put into filthy cells.

In 2010, a severely and chronically depressed prisoner who had attempted to kill himself a few months earlier was escorted to the ADX 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 staff knowingly chose to place the seriously mentally ill prisoner in the feces-caked cell just vacated by another seriously mentally ill inmate and left him there for two days for the purpose of punishing him by means of another prisoner’s excrement….

According to the suit, it is against BOP policy to place an inmate with a known severe mental illness in the ADX Control Unit. The suit alleges that this policy is ignored. Putting psychotic prisoners into the ADX Control Unit creates a hellish Catch-22. Because BOP policy prohibits the placement of psychotic prisoners in the ADX Control Unit, where prisoners are held round-the-clock in total isolation, the BOP refuses to allow any prisoner held there to take psychotropic medications. After all, there are not supposed to be any mentally ill prisoners in the unit so why would they need medication? In order to put a mentally ill prisoner in the unit as punishment, the suit says, prison officials take them off their medications and then claim they are no longer sick.

BOP… discontinues the prisoner’s medication, thereby making the now non-medicated prisoner “eligible” for placement in the Control Unit. Then when, this newly eligible prisoner requests medication needed to treat his serious mental illness, he is told that BOP policy prohibits the administration of psychotropic medication to him so he should develop ‘coping skills’ as a substitute for medicine being withheld.

Instructing a prisoner confined in long-term segregation and who has schizophrenia or bipolar illness to self-treat this disease with coping skills is like demanding that a diabetic prisoner learn to ‘cope’ without insulin. 

The suit also reveals that the officer at the prison who is responsible for investigating inmate complaints against staff members is married to one of the lieutenants who oversees the running of the prison. That’s a clear cut conflict of interest, the suit insists.

There was a time when the BOP was not afraid to allow reporters behind its walls to observe what was happening in federal prisons. Between 1987 to 1989, I was given unlimited access to the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. I spent a full-year behind its walls as a reporter watching everyday life unfold and wrote about what I saw in The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison, my best selling book.

But that spirit of openness inside the BOP apparently no longer exists. No reporter, author, television crew or any independent journalists have ever been permitted inside the Supermax. I can only assume that this is because the Supermax is designed to be the absolute bleakest facility in the nation and the current BOP leadership knows that no matter how objective an outsider might be, life inside the Supermax is going to appear to be cruel to most outsiders.

For decades, the BOP insisted that it’s job was not to punish prisoners. The punishment came from being isolated from society. The BOP’s job was merely to keep prisoners from escaping and provide them with diligent care.  But I believe that attitude changed after two correctional officers were murdered in the early 1980s.

Some history here would prove useful.

In the late 1970s, the BOP began moving the so-called “worst of the worst” inmates in the federal system to one location: a maximum security prison located in Marion, Illinois. It replaced the dreaded Alcatraz. [I visited Marion when I was writing my book.] In 1983, one of the major characters in my book, Thomas Silverstein, murdered correctional officer, Merle Clutts. Another Marion officer was murdered a few hours later during a copy-cat killing. At the time, there was no death penalty for prisoners who killed correctional officers so Silverstein was placed under what unofficially was known as “no human contact” status. In his case, that meant being locked in total isolation with the lights on 24 hours a day and, at least initially, with nothing in his cell. Nothing. No writing materials. No radio, no television, no books or other entertainment. 

After the murders in Marion, the BOP argued that it needed a higher-level prison where the most dangerous U.S. prisoners could be held safely. In November 1994, the Supermax was opened in Colorado and Silverstein and other notorious prisoners, including terrorists, prison gang members and Mafia figures, were moved there. All of them were put under a similar “no human contact” status. They were placed in solitary confinement twenty-four hours a day. [Silverstein has been kept in solitary since 1983 — the longest of any U.S. prisoners in recent times.]

The prisoners were told that if they obeyed the rules, they would earn points and eventually be to transfer to another less restrictive prison. But some prisoners broke the rules and, as punishment, they were put into the ADX Control Unit.  In that unit, they get the minimum requirements afforded them under the  U.S. Constitution.

According to the lawsuit, this is where many of the inmates with mental illness end up because they act out. Because they are not allowed to have medication, once they enter the Control Unit, it is difficult for them to successfully earn enough “points” to work their way out  of the unit. Consequently, some are caught for years in a living hell — unmedicated, locked up 24 hours a day, with little or nothing in their cells.

Prisoners interminably wait, 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. Others carry on delusional conversations with voices they hear in their heads oblivious to the reality and the danger that such behavior might pose to themselves and anyone who interacts with them.

 You might expect the lawsuit to attract national attention. But sadly, only Andrew Cohen at The Atlantic Monthly, has written extensively about it. This lack of national interest might be justified — inmates are notorious for getting gullible attorneys to file frivilious lawsuits — but Aro is a well-respected attorney and Arnold & Porter is nationally known for its pro bono work.

Let’s hope that The Washington Post, New York Times and other responsible news organizations are waiting for the BOP to file its response before writing about the lawsuit. More importantly, let’s hope that this lawsuit results in the BOP allowing some sunshine into the Supermax.  If the BOP is not doing anything wrong behind its fences, then it should not be afraid to let journalists and other independent experts inside to make certain that prisoners, especially those with mental disorders, are not being abused.

In his well-written article about the lawsuit, Andrew Cohen reminds us that more than 150 years ago, in a book aptly titled House of the Dead, Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”  To quote Cohen, the lawsuit alleges that  for inmates with mental illnesses at the Supermax:

The prison is a gulag, a place of unspeakable cruelty and state sponsored wickedness, run by officials who ignore their own policies and seem to revel in humiliating prisoners by depriving them of basic human dignities.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. Wow, Pete.  This is powerful and disturbing and eye-opening.  Thank you for sharing this important information.  How can we help make change occur?

  2. This is happening all over.  I can attest to that.  I begged that my husband be baker acted…the deputy carted him off to jail, and he has not received any mental health care there.  Someone hung himself a few cells over, and this is no big deal to the prison guards!  I am very worried about my husband’s mental state.  In Lee county, they drag their feet in the legal system.  I don’t even know why they have a psychiatrist on hand, he is worthless.  He was taken off all his meds because the doctor doesn’t feel he needs them?!?!?!?!  I am outraged at how common this is.  They sedate them before their first appearance before the judge, so they have no opportunity to defend themselves.  I have lost all faith in the justice system and the media circus.