Inmates With Mental Illnesses Neglected Inside Toughest U.S. Prison

supermax cell

More horror stories are surfacing about prisoners with mental illnesses allegedly being abused and neglected inside the federal government’s most secretive maximum security penitentiary.

Consider the case of prisoner Richie Hill who became convinced diamond rings were hidden under his skin. Hill, who has been diagnosed with a severe mental illness, began scratching holes into his own flesh with his fingernails to remove the diamonds. Those open wounds soon became infected because he smeared feces on himself. At one point, a worm was spotted living in one of his open wounds. When Hill was finally taken to the federal Bureau of Prison’s hospital in Springfield, Missouri, the doctors initially considered amputating his legs because of a severe staph infection.

It’s against BOP’s own rules to house anyone with a severe mental illness at its Super Max penitentiary in Florence, Colorado, yet the federal government is doing exactly that, according to a civil rights lawsuit filed in Denver.

Prison officials claimed Hill was faking mental illness.

Robert Knott tied a bedsheet around his neck last month and hanged himself inside the Super Max. He had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and had been kept in isolation nearly nineteen years. Seven different times, he was sent to the Springfield medical center to be evaluated because of his bizarre behavior. The last time the Justice Department had him civilly committed so he could be forcibly medicated, yet he was returned to the Super Max in what would appear to be a violation of the BOP’s own policies. Knott had stopped taking his medication when he killed himself.

The Hill and Knott cases have come to light because of a class action lawsuit filed by Ed Aro, an attorney in the Denver office of Arnold and Porter. I’ve written about the suit before but Atlantic magazine writer Andrew Cohen has been the most dogged about reporting its allegations.

This week Aro won a victory when Bureau of Prison lawyers agreed to transfer a fluidly psychotic inmate named Jonathan Francisco to the Springfield medical unit. His mother had been trying to get help for his mental illness for five years. Aro became so alarmed when he learned of Francisco’s plight that he filed an emergency petition asking a judge to force the BOP to transfer his client to a mental health care unit. The BOP’s lawyers  caved in when that hearing was held.

Here are some troubling sentences from Aro’s petition.

Francisco has displayed a persistent pattern of bizarre and worrisome signs and symptoms suggesting that he suffers from a severe and worsening mental illness. During that time, he has been almost entirely mute, speaking very little, if any, to anyone, including family members with whom he previously had a close relationship. He spends most of his time standing with his face very near a wall, staring blankly at the surface before him.

He also obsessively hoards and handles his own feces, placing it on food trays, rolling it into balls, making sculptures out of it, and smearing it on his walls and sometimes on his body or in his hair. He has repeatedly defecated in common-use shower facilities, and on at least one occasion has been seen consuming his feces. In addition, he often has little if any personal property in his cell, frequently sleeps without even a mattress, and continuously lives in unsanitary conditions verging on squalor.

Despite all of this, BOP records reflect that he receives no meaningful ongoing mental health treatment; instead, the BOP’s mental health professionals essentially ignore him. The available evidence suggests that the BOP’s response to his situation, thus far, has been to occasionally force him into a shower stall, and to pile sandbags outside his door in a futile effort to prevent the overwhelming smell of feces emanating from his cell from spreading throughout the part of the prison where he lives.

No one gets incarcerated at the Super Max because they are a Girl Scout. It’s where our nation warehouses the absolute worst of the worst, including Islamic terrorists, vicious gang members, brutal drug lords, cold blooded killers. The plaintiffs who Aro represents are there for a reason. But does that mean they are not entitled to decent mental health care while they are serving their sentences? 

Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

Little wonder the BOP refuses all requests by reporters — including 60 Minutes — to see what happens behind the Super Max’s well-guarded doors.

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.