DENVER, Jun 18, 2012 (BUSINESS WIRE) -- A class-action lawsuit was filed today alleging that the U.S. Bureau of Prisons is mistreating mentally ill prisoners at the Supermax U.S. penitentiary in Florence, Colorado. Eleven prisoners filed the case on behalf of all mentally ill prisoners at the facility. The defendants are the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and several of its top officials with responsibility for the operation of the prison. According to papers filed in the U.S. District Court for Colorado, extended confinement in isolation is likely to exacerbate all types of mental illness, increasing the risk of violence against prison staff and other inmates, and reducing the likelihood that these prisoners will ever be able successfully to re-enter society at the end of their sentences.
The lawsuit, styled Bacote, et al v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, seeks to compel BOP to comply with its own existing policies and rules regarding the placement and treatment of mentally ill prisoners. The lawsuit also seeks to define a minimum level of care and medical treatment for those in custody that is sufficient to satisfy the prohibitions of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution against cruel and unusual punishment.
The penitentiary in Florence, referred to as ADX, was built to house the most dangerous prisoners in the system and is considered to be the most secure prison in the country. Staff there refer to ADX as the "Alcatraz of the Rockies." Prisoners spend up to 24 hours per day in single cells, and their communications and contact with other inmates and staff are severely restricted.
The complaint alleges that despite the BOP's own written policies excluding the mentally ill from ADX because of its severe conditions, the BOP frequently assigns prisoners with mental illness there because of a deficient evaluation and screening process. Then, according to the complaint, mentally ill prisoners housed at ADX are denied constitutionally adequate treatment and services.
The consequences of BOP's deliberate indifference to the proper diagnosis and treatment of prisoners with serious mental illness are shocking. According to the complaint, "Some prisoners mutilate their own bodies with razors, shards of glass, sharpened chicken bones, writing utensils and whatever other objects they can obtain. Others swallow razor blades, nail clippers, broken glass and other dangerous objects. Many engage in fits of screaming and ranting for hours on end. Others carry on delusional conversations with the voices they hear in their heads, oblivious to reality and the danger that such behavior might pose to themselves and to anyone who interacts with them. Still others spread feces and other waste throughout their cells, throw it at the correctional staff and otherwise create health hazards at ADX. Suicide attempts are common; many have been successful." In fact, a wrongful death lawsuit was filed last month in federal court in Colorado. That lawsuit, styled Vega v. Davis, charges that a prisoner at ADX suffering from mental illness committed suicide while he was there because he was not properly treated.
Ed Aro, a partner in the Denver office of Arnold & Porter and the lead attorney in the case, calls ADX "a national disgrace." He adds, "No one disputes that certain prisoners require a closely controlled prison environment. But for people with mental illness, confinement with little or no mental health care in the isolated and brutal conditions at ADX is torment. It's wrong and it's unconstitutional."
The Complaint alleges that because of their untreated or poorly treated mental illness, many prisoners at ADX act out, resulting in disruption, compromised security and a risk of harm to themselves, ADX staff and other prisoners. And, as Aro points out, "Not everyone at ADX will die in prison. A quarter of our mentally ill clients there will be released into the community in the next five years, and almost 60% will be released in the next 20 years. Unless the BOP reforms the mental health system at ADX, it will be very, very difficult for mentally ill prisoners held there to return to society safely and successfully."
The DC Prisoners' Project of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs is co-counsel with Arnold & Porter. Its director, Philip Fornaci, said, "Americans would not allow sick or wounded animals to be treated as these prisoners are treated. They should not sanction the inhumane treatment of U.S. citizens, whatever crimes they committed in the past. We will not stop until this situation has changed."
Arnold & Porter LLP, with offices in nine cities, including Denver, Colorado, has a long-standing commitment to important pro bono matters, including those involving the rights of prisoners.
The DC Prisoners' Project of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs ( http://www.washlaw.org/projects/dc-prisoners-rights ) advocates for the humane treatment and dignity of the nearly 8,000 DC prisoners currently held in dozens of BOP facilities across the country. In collaboration with private law firms and individual pro bono attorneys, the Project has achieved significant changes in access to health care for DC prisoners in jails and prisons across the country, including insuring access to constitutionally-adequate levels of medical and mental health care in both local jails and distant BOP facilities.
Additional information about the Bacote and Vega lawsuits is available at www.supermaxlawsuit.com .
SOURCE: Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs