This week The Atlantic’s website published a powerful three-part investigative report by Andrew Cohen on the inhumane treatment of mentally ill prisoners at “Supermax” in Florence, Colorado, the flagship maximum-security federal prison.
Part One, “American Gulag”, describes flagrant violations of Bureau of Prisons rules requiring medical treatment for prisoners with diagnosed disabilities. Prisoners are caught in a nightmarish cycle of contradictions. Federal policy prohibits prisoners with serious mental illness from being transferred to Supermax, where the inmates are not allowed to be on psychotropic medications. However, many such prisoners are sent there anyway, and then denied the drugs they need to keep from injuring themselves and others. Their acting-out prompts more disciplinary crackdowns that drive them further into madness. According to a lawsuit filed this week by five inmates, alleging violations of the Constitution’s “cruel and unusual punishment” clause, guards often chain up these prisoners in their own waste products and taunt them by giving them empty food bags at mealtime.
In Part Two, “Supermax: The Faces of a Prison’s Mentally Ill”, the magazine profiles the plaintiffs. These are not the sympathetic characters championed by groups like The Innocence Project; they are violent, delusional, convicted of murder and other serious crimes. However, the article reminds us that they are also human beings with shocking trauma histories and, in many cases, mental retardation and brain injuries. Often their conditions have dramatically worsened because prison staff has mistreated them or failed to protect them from other prisoners’ violence. Here’s just one story:
Michael Bacote: He is the first named plaintiff in the case. Age 37, functionally illiterate, and deemed “mildly mentally retarded” a decade ago by a prison psychologist, Bacote was sent to ADX in 2005 after pleading guilty to murder in a case involving the death of a fellow inmate at the federal prison in Texas. (Evidently, he did not kill the victim but rather stood guard while others did.) Bacote has been diagnosed as suffering from “major depressive disorder with psychotic features” as well as from “paranoid ideations,” and he also may suffer the after-effects of severe closed-head injury.
Bacote refuses to take medicine that has been ground up from pill form by prison officials. And they, in turn, refuse to allow Bacote to take his medicine in pill form. Bacote has repeatedly tried to transfer out of Supermax. Over and over again, his requests have been denied. Despite the prior diagnoses from prison doctors, for example, paragraph 138 of the complaint alleges that ADX officials in April 2009 told Bacote that “a review of your file does not indicate you are mentally ill or mentally retarded.”
Part Three, “The Constitution and Mentally Ill Prisoners”, surveys the issues in the current lawsuit. The takeaway question: if we require a certain level of mental competency to hold a person accountable for a crime, “why does such a competency determination not impact the severity of an inmate’s incarceration?” The answer will tell us a lot about what American values really are.
Reading this series, I couldn’t help but wonder…what would happen if Christians threw their considerable political clout behind prison reform? The religious right has poured enormous amounts of money and organizational skills into passing legislation on contentious social issues. Like the unborn, mentally ill prisoners could certainly be considered “the least of these”, whom Jesus told us to protect. Sure, their feet don’t look as good on a lapel pin, but Matthew 25 is pretty clear:
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
So what can YOU do?
Donate to the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, one of the pro bono groups behind this lawsuit. Contact your member of Congress. Write to a prison pen pal, and share their stories so the world can see that these people are “more than their worst act” (as Sister Helen Prejean said in “Dead Man Walking”).