BOP Punishment of Prisoners for Suicide Attempts Continues Despite Director’s Memo
by Derek Gilna
In July 2012, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), unnerved by the increasing number of suicides among federal prisoners, circulated a memo to all federal prisoners from the Director, Charles E. Samuels, Jr., urging them to seek help if they felt suicidal. In many institutions, prisoners were kept out of work so that they could view a video from Samuels covering the same subject. Unfortunately, not everyone on the BOP staff apparently read the memo or saw the video.
There continues to be a disconnect between the BOP’s newly-professed sensitivity to prisoners’ mental conditions and the day-to–day operating procedures in the prisons. On one hand, Samuels’ memo says that if prisoners feel sadness, anxiety, fear, loneliness, anger, or shame that makes them suicidal, they should contact any member of the staff: “Anytime you want to speak with a psychologist, let staff know.... Your unit officer, counselor or case manager, work supervisor, teacher, and treatment specialist are available to speak with you....”
This statement flies in the face of the system-wide BOP policy of rationing medical and mental health care to cut costs. In a system where even seriously-ill prisoners with heart conditions, cancer and other life-threatening illnesses often do not receive the prompt medical care necessary to treat their conditions, it is unrealistic to presume that the BOP’s treatment of mental illness will suddenly improve as a result of a memo.
One of the prisoners who received that memo from Director Samuels was Percy Barron, a mentally-ill prisoner at the ADX-Florence prison. He reached out for help after the death of his mother but was denied treatment. He responded by attempting suicide by ingesting a large dose of over-the-counter medications, and after being treated, was disciplined for the suicide attempt.
BOP records show that in 2011, the BOP actually moved to increase the discipline of prisoners for tattooing and self-mutilation, “to a high severity level prohibited act.” Many mental health professionals feel that tattooing and self-mutilation are signs of extreme mental illness. Of course, when the BOP talks about discipline, they are talking about taking away privileges such as phone calls to friends and family, email, and commissary, and perhaps confining the prisoner to a higher-level institution or administrative segregation. All of these acts would clearly tend to only further isolate an individual already despondent, depressed, and perhaps even suicidal.
Another response to prisoners seeking help is often confinement in an isolated room where they can be observed twenty-four hours a day, where the prisoner is cut off from all human contact, and whose mental health “treatment” is confined to regular visits from a staff psychologist who may or may not be qualified to address his condition.
Jeffrey Metzner, a well-known forensic psychologist, sympathized with prison officials who confronted self-mutilation: “I think the basis for some of these policies and procedures was related to tattooing and gang affiliations ... inmates who self-mutilate are problematic from a correctional perspective because they frequently require transport from a locked down setting such as administrative segregation to either the institution’s emergency room ... or at times to an outside medical facility ... this behavior is both disruptive to the functioning of the ... institution as well as very expensive....”
Metzner also addressed the “mad versus bad” dilemma: “Custody staff often views these prisoners as having a mental illness (i.e. ‘mad’) that should essentially be solely handled by the mental health staff. At the same time, mental health staff frequently views these inmates as being ‘bad,’ and not having a mental illness.”
Then there are the cases such as that of Jose Martin Vega, whose body was found hanging unconscious in his cell in May 2010. When delivered to the Fremont County Coroner’s office shortly thereafter, the corpse, according to BOP policy was shackled at both the hands and the feet, substantiated by photographs obtained by the Atlantic magazine. His death provoked a lawsuit accusing the warden at ADX Florence, Blake R. Davis, as well as other BOP officials with “deliberate indifference” to Vegas’s medical and mental health needs, which the family claims were both numerous and obvious.
BOP attorneys flatly deny the allegations of Vegas’ family, who claim that Vega was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at Supermax in 2004, was transferred to the Supermax from the federal mental health prison facility in Springfield, Missouri, and was confined in the prison’s Control Unit, its most secure unit, where he could not receive the anti-psychotic medicine needed to treat his mental illness. Unfortunately, because of the current state of federal law and court decisions, such cases as Vegas are difficult to prove.
One can only hope that the memo of Charles F. Samuels, Jr. is the beginning of an effort by the BOP to address its issues with the treatment of the many mentally ill prisoners confined in their facilities who do not receive proper treatment.
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