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BOP Supermax Lawsuit Claims Horrific Abuse of Mentally Ill at ADX

“A Clean Version of Hell” – that’s what a 2007 segment of 60 Minutes called the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum facility in Florence, Colorado, or ADX, home to some of the world’s most notorious murderers and terrorists. But according to a grimly detailed lawsuit filed in Denver on June 18, 2012 that alleges systemic mistreatment of mentally ill prisoners, the federal supermax is actually a filthy version of hell – a place where untreated psychotic men mutilate themselves, have delusional conversations with ghosts and live in feces-caked isolation cells for months with little monitoring.

Filed on behalf of five ADX prisoners and another half-dozen “interested parties” who are also prisoners there, the suit claims that the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) ignores its own regulations in shifting dangerous or hard-to-control prisoners to ADX regardless of their mental status, and fails to monitor them properly after they arrive – even to the point of denying them medication or ignoring diagnoses made by other BOP medical staff.

“Many prisoners at ADX interminably wail, scream, and bang on the walls of their cells,” the complaint alleges. “Some mutilate their bodies with razors, shards of glass, sharpened chicken bones, writing utensils, and whatever other objects they can obtain. A number swallow razor blades, nail clippers, parts of radios and televisions ... still others spread feces and other human waste and body fluids throughout their cells, throw it at the correctional staff and otherwise create health hazards at ADX. Suicide attempts are common.” [See: PLN, Oct. 2011, p.10].

One of the interested parties, Jack Powers, had no history of mental illness before his 1990 conviction for bank robbery. He witnessed a prisoner-on-prisoner killing, testified in the case, tried to escape – and ended up in isolation at ADX for ten years. While there he bit off a finger, amputated a testicle, tattooed his body with a razor blade, tried to inject bacteria in his brain, mutilated his genitals and repeatedly attempted suicide. All of these incidents happened after the BOP had diagnosed Powers as mentally ill and was supposedly monitoring him.

Several of the parties associated with the suit have committed ghastly crimes – including William Sablan, who joined with a cousin in disemboweling another prisoner in the SHU at USP Florence in 1999. Sablan is now doing a life sentence for that murder. But the suit points out that other severely mentally ill prisoners at ADX are eligible for release soon despite their lack of treatment.

At least six prisoners have committed suicide at ADX since it opened in 1994. The complaint contains descriptions of staff allegedly goading prisoners to kill themselves, abusing them and denying them food – including a lunchbag “prank” that involves making a videotaped record of staffers handing the prisoner a sack lunch, then leaving the prisoner to discover the sack is empty. Prisoners the staff want to punish are sometimes transferred to cells already caked with feces from the previous occupant, the suit claims.

“They do what they do because they can,” says Ed Aro, an attorney with Arnold and Porter, which filed the suit in collaboration with the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. “There’s a pervasive philosophy at ADX that approves of using punitive methods to deal with aberrant behavior – that if you’ve got someone who’s suicidal, punishing them and putting them in the hole will keep them from killing themselves.”

Aro says he’s interviewed more than 100 prisoners at the supermax. Some are schizophrenic, deeply delusional or raving psychotics; some are severely retarded. The complaint makes numerous allegations about correctional staff interfering with prisoner mail and contact with attorneys, and acts of retaliation against the plaintiffs. “The guys who have agreed to be the plaintiffs in this case have more guts than anybody I’ve ever met,” he says.

While the prison ostensibly has a process for prisoners to complain of mistreatment, the complaint notes that the SIA, or special investigative agent, who’s supposed to handle reports of officer misconduct, is Dianna Krist – the wife of ADX Captain Russell Krist, who oversees the correctional staff. In other words, “the watchdog is married to the person whose staff the watchdog is responsible for investigating.”

As first reported in Westword in 2007, supermax officials have cited “security concerns” as a reason for banning all face-to-face press interviews with prisoners at the facility since 2001. A BOP spokesman declined to respond to questions about the lawsuit, saying the agency would not comment on pending litigation. [See: Bacote v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, U.S.D.C. (D. Col.), Case No. 1:12-cv-01570].

This article was originally published in Westword, a Colorado-based alternative publication ( It is re-printed with permission from the author. More information about the ADX lawsuit is available at

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Related legal case

Bacote v. Federal Bureau of Prisons