March 29, 2015; New York Times

More than two hundred thousand prisoners live in solitary confinement in the federal prison system. Another 80,000 are in state prisons across the country. On average, a third of them are mentally ill—“often profoundly so.” For over 200 years, researchers, psychologists, and government officials have found that solitary confinement leads to and intensifies mental illness. The regulations of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) forbid placing inmates who “show evidence of significant mental disorders in supermax prisons.” Yet more than 40 states operate supermax prisons where people sit in solitary confinement every day.

Every year, Deborah Golden, the director of the D.C. Prisoners’ Project of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs receives about 2,000 requests regarding inmates living in prisons and jails across the country. The legal service organization has for 45 years served its mission of mobilizing the resources of the private bar to address issues of civil rights violations and poverty in the Washington, D.C. community. It has a budget of $2.6 million and an active litigation docket of more than 100 diverse cases on behalf of individuals as well as class actions. The D.C. Prisoners’ Project extends its focus to state prisons because the Prison Litigation Reform Act hinders federal prisoners from filing suits.

In October of 2009, Golden received a letter that caught her eye:

“I suppose to have a hearing before coming to the ADX. They never gave me a hearing. I need some help cause I have facts! Please help me.”

The United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX), is the highest security prison in the country. The $60 million facility is located in Florence, Colorado, and is part of the federal prison system. Its 500 prisoners spend 23 hours a day in solitary confinement. Their 12-by-7 foot cells have solid metal doors to ensure prisoners cannot see one another. Prisoners in the general population are allocated ten hours a week of exercise outside of their cell. When they participate in group visits in the outdoor recreation yard, they remain individually caged. ADX houses many of the who’s-who of criminals, including Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph, Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols, 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, and the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Ramzi Yousef.

The letter was written by Rodney Jones on behalf of another prisoner, Michael Bacote. In 2009, both were locked up in ADX. Bacote and Jones lived near each other back home. Bacote was illiterate, suffered from acute paranoia, and had an I.Q. of 61. He was transferred to ADX after serving as the lookout during a murder in a Texas prison. Jones, too, suffered from mental illness and had traveled in and out of mental institution and prison most of his life. He first attempted suicide at age twelve. Later, Jones became addicted to drugs and looked to robbery to support his habit. For the last eight years of his prison life, he was housed at ADX for three assault charges in less than a year while housed at a medium-security facility. At ADX, Jones was placed in the same cellblock as “The Unabomber,” Ted Kaczynski.

As a result of the letter, in 2012, Golden filed the largest suit ever against the BOP. It documented the dozens of mentally ill prisoners living in solitary confinement at ADX in blatant disregard of the BOP’s own regulations. Many of the stories rival the material in horror films. One ate feces, another his own fingers. Many prisoners, like Jones, were taken off prescribed medications. After Dr. Doris Gundersen, a Denver-based forensic psychiatrist and member of the legal team, evaluated 45 prisoners, she estimated 70 percent were seriously mentally ill.

Thankfully, public opinion on the need for and effects of supermax prisons and solitary confinement is changing. In 2012, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois held the first congressional hearing on the effects of solitary confinement before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights. Dr. Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who worked as a principal researcher on the Stanford Prison Experiment as a graduate student, testified that the emptiness of solitary confinement “has led some prisoners into a profound level of what might be called ‘ontological insecurity.’” His research found that “a shockingly high percentage” of prisoners in solitary confinement are mentally ill, “often profoundly so.”

The hearings lead to a 250-page audit of the BOP’s segregation policies. This first-ever report, completed in December but recently released, found that mentally ill prisoners within the federal system are consistently placed in solitary confinement for extended periods without proper treatment.

Even a former ADX warden believes the prison needs to be transformed. Robert Hood, ADX’s warden from 2002 to 2005, described the prison as “not designed for humanity.” While warden, he focused on getting to know the inmates one-on-one. Based on his experience, he believes the population at ADX should be reduced and the policies of total isolation should be transformed.—Gayle Nelson