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$175,000 Settlement for BOP’s Deliberate Indifference to Mentally Ill Prisoner

by Derek Gilna

Robert Gerald Knott, who had spent decades in the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), committed suicide after staff at the ADX Florence supermax in Colorado ignored clear signs that he was going to harm himself. Knott, who had a lengthy history of serious mental illness, had spent eleven years in solitary confinement in spite of a BOP policy that is supposed to prohibit mentally ill prisoners from being held in solitary. His estate filed a Federal Tort Claims Act suit after the BOP denied an administrative claim.

Knott, by any analysis, had a difficult upbringing; there was violence between his birth parents resulting in his father’s death, and both of his adoptive parents died when he was fifteen. He had been held in BOP custody since 1989 and diagnosed with serious mental illness in 1990. Despite Knott’s known mental health condition, he received no meaningful treatment while incarcerated.

It was not as though prison authorities were not on notice. Knott had spent time in the mental health unit at a prison hospital in Springfield, Missouri after he reported seeing “white bugs,” and he was sent to a mental hospital on the order of a federal judge. But after that order expired he was transferred to ADX Florence, where he was placed in solitary confinement.

There, according to observers, instead of receiving the treatment he needed, Knott was largely ignored and continued on his downward mental spiral without any mental health care.

“I would see and hear officers peeking in his cell and whispering to each other like he was some sort of spectacle ... they never notified the Lt. or [mental health staff] about his bizarre behavior,” another prisoner wrote after Knott’s death. “They would infrequently open his outer door to peek inside without asking him was he ok or why he was doing what he was doing.”

What Knott was doing was smearing his cell with feces and living in filth. The prison guards rarely inspected his cell, and after his death it was found to be “littered with garbage and marked with writings on the wall.”

According to the complaint filed by his estate, “the officers acted as though Mr. Knott’s actions were an entertaining spectacle rather than an emergency situation. They whispered and commented to each other about the disgusting character of [his] cell and of the fact that he had obstructed the view into the cell.” The lawsuit attributed Knott’s “pain, suffering, and death” to the “conduct of certain current and former employees and contractors of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.”

The case settled in March 2016 for $175,000. See: Johnson-Hess v. United States, U.S.D.C. (D. Col.), Case No. 1:16-cv-00117-MEH.

Knott’s death was at least the seventh suicide at ADX Florence. A separate class-action suit challenging the treatment of mentally ill prisoners at ADX Florence also recently settled, and that case will be reported in a future issue of PLN. [See: PLN, Nov. 2015, p.1; Nov. 2012, p.42].

Faced with a barrage of lawsuits based on similar facts, the BOP has started to treat mentally ill prisoners at a facility in Atlanta, Georgia. However, as stated by The Marshall Project, an independent criminal justice news agency, in reference to the Knott case: “Washington can come up with all the well-meant policies and practices in the world, but unless the prison guards sworn to implement those policies behave better than they did in this case, our federal prisons will continue [to] be places where displays of severe mental illness are considered a spectacle, or at least a nuisance.” 


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Related legal case

Johnson-Hess v. United States