First a note about Colorado
I was on the west coast Friday doing research for a new nonfiction book when I received a seven a.m. telephone call from CNN asking if I wanted to comment about a shooting in Aurora. Was this incident similar to the Virginia Tech massacre or the rampage in Tuscon? I felt a sickening sense of dread as soon as I heard that question. But I really couldn’t comment. I was still in bed and hadn’t yet turned on the hotel television or my computer. I really didn’t know anything about the mass murders. As I write this, we still haven’t been told enough about the mental state of the gunman to speculate. All I can say is that my heart goes out to all of the victims in this horrific tragedy.
I wrote last week about a recent lawsuit that alleges the federal Bureau of Prisons is mistreating inmates with mental disorders being held in its so-called Supermax, ADX penitentiary in Florence, Colorado. I believe this suit is so shocking that it merits another blog post. The lead attorney in the class action suit, Ed Aro, told me via email that the director of the BOP, Charles E. Samuels Jr., in sworn testimony before a congressional committee, testified that there were no inmates with serious mental illnesses being held in the high security ADX. He made this statement the day after the lawsuit was filed.
Aro’s reacted with one stunned word: “Incredible!”
That’s putting it mildly if the accusations in the lawsuit are factual.
The BOP’s attorneys have yet to respond. But the director’s testimony certainly doesn’t jive with what is described in the lawsuit. Let’s review just two inmates whose backgrounds are recounted in the court document.
[From the lawsuit] Mr. Pinson is 26 years old and is at the Supermax after being convicted of making threats against the President of the United States, a federal judge, a Secret Service Agent, and a juror. His projected release date is October 3, 2025. Mr. Pinson has a serious mental illness that has at various points been diagnosed as Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, and Severe and Chronic PTSD. He also has Epilepsy and experiences frequent seizures.Several members of Mr. Pinson’s close family have long suffered from mental illness. Both of his maternal grandparents were diagnosed with Schizophrenia, and his maternal grandmother committed suicide after a long struggle with Depression. His mother has been diagnosed with and medicated for Depression throughout most of her adult life.Mr. Pinson’s childhood was marked by psychotic episodes. He began hearing voices and having visual hallucinations around the age of 7. He began receiving psychological treatment by age 8 and received his first inpatient psychiatric treatment by age 10. When he was 13, he sent threatening letters to both his mother and to the President of the United States, he stabbed a classmate with a pen, and threatened to blow up his school. He received inpatient treatment for suicide attempts and psychotic symptoms at the ages of 12, 15 and 16.In 2005, prior to his trial on charges of threatening the President of the United States, Mr. Pinson underwent a court-ordered psychological evaluation to assess his competency. While being held for the evaluation, Mr. Pinson tried several times to kill himself. According to the forensic report, “Mr. Pinson had not experienced any significant period of effective psychological functioning since early childhood [and] only with long-term psychiatric and psychotherapeutic intervention [would he] have any hope of developing into a mature and psychologically healthy individual.” Nevertheless, the report found him competent to stand trial; he was convicted.On April 2, 2007, Mr. Pinson was sentenced to 240 months imprisonment. The Court recommended that he serve his sentence at FMC Butner, which includes the BOP’s largest psychological treatment complex. The BOP rejected that recommendation, and instead sent Mr. Pinson to USP Victorville and then to FDC Houston. While at FDC Houston, Mr. Pinson wrote another letter, this time threatening to kill a Secret Service Agent who testified at his sentencing. This letter resulted in another conviction. At his sentencing for this conviction, the sentencing judge “strongly recommended” that the BOP conduct a “full-blown” evaluation of Mr. Pinson’s “mental and physical needs and the drugs required to deal with both” at a capable facility, identifying the MCFP Springfield and the FMC Butner as appropriate facilities. Again rejecting the Court’s recommendation, the BOP placed Mr. Pinson at USP Coleman II, where his mental health problems continued.Since then, Mr. Pinson has attempted suicide multiple times, including an attempted drug overdose and two incidents where he tried to hang himself. He continues to suffer from severe depression and suicidal ideation, and has sought treatment for both. The BOP has conducted more than 12 suicide risk assessments on Mr. Pinson and placed him on suicidewatch at least 9 times. The BOP is well aware that Mr. Pinson is mentally ill and in need of intense counseling and therapy. A January 2011 BOP Progress Report notes that Mr. Pinson has a history of mental health diagnoses prior to incarceration, that he has been hospitalized for mental disorders and attempted suicide, that he suffers from Schizophrenia and other PsychoticDisorders, and that he needs further mental health treatment. While in the BOP’s custody, Mr. Pinson has been prescribed a litany of psychotropic medications, including the antipsychotics Olanzapine, Quietapine, Risperidone, Fluphenazine, Haldol and Perphenazine, antidepressants Amitriptyline, Bupropion, Mirtazapine and Sertraline, antimanic Depakote, andthe anti-anxiety medication Buspirone.Nonetheless, in February 2011, the BOP transferred Mr. Pinson to ADX, where he was placed in the SHU. Mr. Pinson challenged this transfer on a variety of grounds, including that his PTSD, Bipolar Disorder, and Epilepsy made him an inappropriate candidate for placement at ADX. Mr. Pinson complained that at ADX he could not receive proper mentalhealth treatment, including the ability to participate in mental health programs.In a July 2011 response, the BOP informed Mr. Pinson that ADX was “providing [mental health] programs consistent with [his] security needs.” In or around June 2011, Mr. Pinson was transferred to an ADX General Population unit. In December 2011, Mr. Pinson asked Dr. Severn, an ADX staff psychiatrist, for a referral to the BOP’s Habilitation Treatment Program. Mr. Pinson has received no such referral.David ShelbyMr. Shelby is 47 years old. He was born in Benton, Kentucky, and raised in Indiana. Immediately before his incarceration he lived in Utah. Mr. Shelby suffers from a serious mental illness, Bipolar Disorder. Mr. Shelby has been housed at ADX since October 2000. He currently is serving a 24-year sentence for a 1996 conviction for making threats against the President, in addition to other felonies, and a consecutive 80-month sentence resulting from his 1997 attempted “suicide by officer.”Mr. Shelby was raised in a family wracked by extreme poverty and mental illness. He was raised by his mother, who suffered from serious mental illness. When Mr. Shelby was 16 years old, he attempted suicide through an overdose of sleeping pills and whiskey. In 1989, Mr. Shelby was sentenced to imprisonment at the Westville Correctional Center in Indiana. During his incarceration, Mr. Shelby attempted to burn another prisoner with a torch constructed from a mop stick. Mr. Shelby claimed that God had directed him to make the torch and burn the other prisoner. As a result of the incident, a mental status examination was performed in September 1989, during which Mr. Shelby stated that “he did not exactly hear voices; but more like — heard feelings.” The mental health examiner concluded that Mr. Shelby may have suffered an acute psychotic episode — Schizophreniform Disorder in remission.Mr. Shelby was released on parole in 1992. In December 1994, Mr. Shelby mailed threatening letters to the President of the United States as part of a plan by Mr. Shelby to secure the release of Charles Manson from prison. A few weeks later, in January 1995, he was arrested in Ogden, Utah, while attempting to mail several packages. One of the packages was addressed to the President of the United States and contained a modified light bulb that had been filled with smokeless gunpowder, a pocket knife, and a note reading, “I think you are doing a good job and I am sending you the pocket knife as a gift and a light bulb so that you won’t strain your eyes.” A second package, addressed to Charles Manson, contained a revolver with a fork affixed to its end to be used as a bayonet, a straight razor, and two explosive devices.Mr. Shelby was charged with making threats against the President of the United States, illegal possession of firearms/destructive devices, and possession of a firearm. In a mental health evaluation conducted while at the Salt Lake County Jail, Mr. Shelby described how “voices” had instructed him to “Help Charlie [Manson]” and that “if Charlie was President, he could set me free.” In connection with his prosecution and court-ordered mental health evaluation, Mr. Shelby was sent to MCFP Springfield, where he underwent a psychiatric evaluation for a period of approximately three months. While at MCFP Springfield, Mr. Shelby attempted to commit suicide by ingesting a mouthful of Lysol and later by ingesting a mouthful of Bon Ami cleanser. He stated that he attempted suicide because he “began to be concerned he might actually be mentally ill” and also reportedly stated that he “did not want to die, but if God wants me to do it, it’s like a commandment.” According to the subsequent forensic report, Mr. Shelby was treated with an antipsychotic medication and was diagnosed with alcohol abuse and Schizotypal Personality Disorder that is “not regarded as a mental disease or defect by most authorities.”After Mr. Shelby returned to Salt Lake County Jail in August 1995, he voluntarily surrendered a knife constructed of wire and wrapped with a leather shoelace and reported to jail personnel that he had impulses to murder another prisoner. He reportedly told a mental health worker that “they tell me I’m not crazy . . . then the voice of God I hear, telling me to kill all the baby rapers, must be real. God told me to kill Ryan because he is the lowest of them all.”In January 1996, Mr. Shelby was ordered to undergo a second mental health evaluation. The second evaluation concurred with the prior diagnosis of Schizotypal Personality Disorder, noting that much of Mr. Shelby’s psychotic illness “appears to be controlled with the medication.”Mr. Shelby pled guilty to charges relating to his January 1995 arrest, and was sentenced to 288 months in the custody of the BOP. At his sentencing hearing, Mr. Shelby reportedly stated, “For quite some time in my life, I have been listening to voices in my head that I thought came from God . . . . The terrible crimes I have committed were because I believed they were commandments of God.”Mr. Shelby spent approximately one year of his sentence as an prisoner at USP Florence, Colorado. In June 1996, Mr. Shelby requested discontinuation of his medication,which at the time included the antipsychotic Navane and Cogentin, which helps reduce certain side effects of Navane. After his medication was discontinued, Mr. Shelby was given no other psychiatric or mental health treatment. In early 1997, Mr. Shelby was transferred to USP Atlanta. A few months after his arrival, Mr. Shelby took a staff member hostage in the institution’s kitchen with a homemade knife, in an effort to provoke the prison staff to kill him — a scenario known as “suicide by officer.” Mr. Shelby was not killed in the incident, but rather was subdued and charged with assault of a U.S. penitentiary employee with a dangerous weapon. In a statement about the incident, Mr. Shelby reported:“On July 23, 1997, while I was a prisoner at the United States Penitentiary in Atlanta, I held Ms. Ross, a prison staff person,hostage with a knife. It was never my intention to harm anyone. This was a suicide attempt. I did this in hopes that the staff would shoot me. I have problems with depression and I was not receiving the proper medication at the time of this incident.”In May 1998, during his prosecution for assault of a U.S. penitentiary employee,the Court ordered a psychiatric evaluation of Mr. Shelby at USP Talladega in Alabama. Upon information and belief, at the time of his evaluation, Mr. Shelby continued to suffer from severe, chronic and untreated Bipolar Disorder. In the BOP evaluation, Mr. Shelby was diagnosed with the major Depressive Disorder, currently in remission; Alcohol Dependence in sustained, full remission in controlled environment; history of hallucinogen abuse; Personality Disorder NOS (schizotypal and antisocial traits); and history of head injury. Mr. Shelby was found competent to stand trial. Mr. Shelby also later again was evaluated at MCFP Springfield. At MCFPSpringfield, Mr. Shelby was diagnosed with Major Depression, in full remission; Alcohol Dependence; Personality Disorder NOS (schizotypal and antisocial traits); and post mild closed head injury. Thereafter, Mr. Shelby pleaded guilty to charges stemming from his attempted “suicide by officer” and was sentenced to 80 months of confinement in BOP custody, to run consecutive to his original federal sentence. As part of the sentence, the court recommended that Mr. Shelby participate in a mental health treatment program during his incarceration.Mr. Shelby was transferred to ADX in 2000 and placed in the ADX general population. Since his arrival at ADX, Mr. Shelby has suffered from continuing symptoms of bipolar illness, as a result of which he is engaged in a pattern of bizarre, erratic, and harmful behavior. In or about 2009, Mr. Shelby attempted suicide. Upon information and belief, at the time of this suicide attempt, Mr. Shelby was in the throes of psychosis caused by his as-yet untreated Bipolar Disorder. Mr. Shelby heard the Bob Dylan song “Knocking On Heaven’s Door” playing on the radio and understood the song to be a message “calling him home.” He responded by sitting down in a shower and severely cutting both arms, both legs, and his belly using glass from a broken television. Sometime later, ADX staff discovered him bleeding and in a semi-coherent state. His wounds were bandaged at the ADX medical facility and he was returned to a standard ADX cell. After his suicide attempt, a BOP psychologist diagnosed Mr. Shelby as suffering from Bipolar Disorder. He was thereafter prescribed the anti-manic medication Depakote and the antidepressant Zoloft. Although the medications have helped Mr. Shelby cope with his serious mental illness, they have not resolved his periodic psychotic episodes and his hallucinations.
For example, later in 2009, Mr. Shelby heard a voice, which he took to be God’s voice, commanding him to eat his finger. In response, Mr. Shelby amputated his left pinky finger approximately 1/2 inch from where the pinky joined his hand, and cut the finger into small pieces, which he added to a bowl of ramen soup and ate. ADX staff discovered him bleeding in his cell, and one ADX staff member asked him how his finger tasted.
In early 2010, Mr. Shelby was transferred to the ADX step-down program. He maintained clear conduct during stays in the Joker Unit and Kilo Unit, and was transferred to the final stage of the step-down program, which is located at the USP Florence. In September 2011, while looking at a friend largely confined to a wheelchair, Mr. Shelby inexplicably saw what he
believed to be “devil horns” on his friend’s forehead. Mr. Shelby began choking his friend, and was subdued, restrained, and returned to ADX. After spending several months in disciplinary segregation in the SHU, Mr. Shelby returned to the General Population Unit, where he resides today.
I am not naive about how dangerous either of these inmates might be. Nor do I believe that a prisoner is entitled to a “get out of jail card free ” simply because he has a mental disorder. I also realize that some inmates fake mental disorders.
But the goal of this lawsuit is not to free any of the plaintiffs. Nor is it to get them financial compensation. Rather, the goal of the lawsuit is to force the BOP to adhere to its own guidelines — regulations that prohibit persons with severe mental disorders from being housed at the Supermax prison because of the isolation and harsh conditions that are imposed on inmates there as punishment. It is about getting prisoners who are mentally ill meaningful help for their mental problems — before releasing them back into the public!
If Director Samuels wants Congress to believe that the BOP is not housing severely mentally ill convicts at the ADX, he might start by explaining why if he thinks a sane person would amputate his left pinkie, cut the finger in small pieces, add it to a bowl of soup and eat it.