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Conditions on Federal Death Row “Horrendous,” ACLU Finds

The conditions of confinement on federal death row fall below minimum constitutional standards and jeopardize the lives and safety of condemned prisoners, according to an investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

The results of the ACLU’s investigation were summarized in an October 15, 2008 letter sent to Harley Lappin, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The letter detailed the plight of some 50 prisoners on federal death row, known as the Special Confinement Unit (SCU) at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana.

According to the letter, prisoners at the SCU are denied basic medical treatment, adequate mental health services and timely dental care, and are subjected to constant noise that causes sleep deprivation and psychological and physiological stress.

“Our findings should be a clear wake-up call for federal prison officials and should prompt them to do whatever is necessary to ensure that they are fulfilling their constitutional obligations to provide adequate levels of care,” said Gabriel B. Eber, who sent the 30-page letter to Lappin after investigating conditions at the SCU for one year. “The Constitution prohibits deliberate indifference to the serious medical needs of prisoners, including those sentenced to die,” wrote Eber.

One of the ACLU’s most alarming findings involved a situation where a prisoner was forced to wait three hours before being transported to a hospital after suffering a heart attack. The delay was caused by a Terre Haute policy requiring all SCU prisoners to be examined by the institution physician before being sent to an outside hospital. The prison’s doctor lives an hour and a half away from the facility. “BOP’s policy of requiring physician approval of emergency room visits when the on-call physician is located an hour and a half away speaks of a reckless disregard for the medical needs of the prisoners in its care,” Eber stated.

Other prisoners have been forced to endure significant delays in receiving medical treatment by a specialist. One prisoner, for example, waited five years before receiving eye surgery – a delay that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit found unacceptable. See: Ortiz v. Bezy, 281 Fed. Appx. 594 (7th Cir. 2008).

The ACLU also reported problems with the management of SCU prisoners’ diabetes. One prisoner was denied a diabetic diet. Another, who suffers from Type-2 diabetes, had his blood glucose checked less than 50 times over a two-year period.

Dental care fares no better; prisoners are often forced to wait 13 months or more before seeing a dentist. Some SCU prisoners have elected to have all their teeth pulled rather than endure constant pain from untreated dental problems.

Prisoners are also subjected to “drive-by” mental health evaluations, the ACLU claimed. A psychologist stops at each cell and, through the cell door, asks the prisoner if he is doing okay. “Minute-long cell-front consultations do not satisfy the Bureau’s legal duty to provide mental health care to prisoners,” Eber noted.

One prisoner, who was denied mental health treatment, volunteered for execution. “The fact that prisoners are asking to be executed as a means of escaping the horrendous conditions they are forced to contend with on a daily basis is a testament to just how urgently changes are needed,” said Eber. “That kind of reality is unworthy of a society that cherishes justice and fairness.”

There is no indication that the BOP has made improvements in response to the ACLU’s concerns regarding conditions and medical care for SCU prisoners.

Sources: ACLU letter dated October 15, 2008; USA Today

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Related legal case

281 Fed. Appx. 594 (7th Cir. 2008)