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Federal Court Approves Landmark BOP ADX Mental Health Settlement

by Derek Gilna

Following a two-day hearing, Colorado federal district court judge Richard P. Matsch approved a landmark settlement in December 2016 that ended a five-year class-action lawsuit over the horrendous mistreatment of mentally ill prisoners. As a result of the settlement, federal prison officials agreed to sweeping changes in mental health treatment protocols at the ADX supermax facility in Colorado.

The suit, filed in June 2012, alleged that mentally ill prisoners held at ADX “interminably wail, scream and bang on the walls of their cells. Some mutilate their bodies with razors, shards of glass, writing utensils and whatever other objects they can obtain. Some swallow razor blades, nail clippers, parts of radios and televisions, broken glass and other dangerous objects. Others carry on delusional conversations with voices they hear in their heads, oblivious to the reality and the danger that such behavior might pose to themselves and anyone who interacts with them.” [See: PLN, Nov. 2012, p.42].

ADX, a federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facility located in Florence, Colorado, designed to be the most secure prison facility in the country, is a monument to the ingenuity of those who felt prisoners should be punished, not rehabilitated. It is the final destination for federal prisoners convicted of the most serious crimes, including murder and terrorism. In that kind of environment, with an emphasis on solitary confinement, it was inevitable that mentally ill prisoners would seriously deteriorate, and ADX prisoners filed numerous unsuccessful pro se lawsuits complaining of civil rights violations.

Those suits eventually caught the attention of Ed Aro, a partner at the Arnold & Porter law firm in Washington, DC, who was joined by other experienced plaintiffs’ attorneys who conducted rigorous discovery and protracted negotiations with the BOP under the supervision of a U.S. Magistrate Judge. As a result of those efforts, the parties entered into a settlement that should dramatically improve mental health treatment for federal prisoners.

Included in the terms of the settlement were improved screening of prisoners’ psychiatric issues before they are placed in ADX, better staff training on how to recognize and respond to symptoms of mental illness, and the appointment of outside professionals to monitor mental health treatment programs at the facility. As a result of the lawsuit, the BOP has already moved more than 100 prisoners diagnosed with mental health problems to other facilities with treatment programs.

As provided in the settlement, the BOP agreed to open a Secure Mental Health Step Down Unit (SMHSDU) at USP Atlanta in Georgia, as well as a second SMHSDU at USP Allenwood in Pennsylvania. Prison officials also instituted a Secure Steps Toward Awareness Growth and Emotional Strength (STAGES) program at the High Security USP in Florence, Colorado, and revised its program statements to reflect changes in its mental health treatment at secure facilities.

Those revisions included the “development and implementation of privilege incentive programs for inmates housed at ADX”; the “continued use and enhancement of an at-risk recreation program to identify inmates who are not participating in any recreation programs, attempting to educate them on wellness, and encouraging their participation in a structured recreation program”; “constructing, maintaining, and employing facilities for group therapy at ADX”; and “constructing, maintaining, and employing areas for private psychological and psychiatric counseling sessions in all housing units at ADX.”

As a result of the settlement agreement, the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs will receive $30,424 for out-of-pocket expenses incurred during the litigation, plus $73,704 for the organization’s attorneys’ fees. Disability Law Colorado will receive $5,500 in costs and $48,217 in attorneys’ fees. Arnold & Porter, LLP will receive $3,692,155, which includes $880,297 for expert witness fees and other expenses and the remainder in attorneys’ fees.

The money paid by the BOP, however, is secondary to the alleviation of the profound suffering experienced by mentally ill prisoners at ADX due to the policy changes set forth in the settlement agreement. The district court held a fairness hearing, then approved the settlement on December 29, 2016. The court retained jurisdiction to enforce the terms of the agreement as needed. See: Cunningham v. Bureau of Prisons, U.S.D.C. (D. Col.). Case No. 1:12-cv-01570-RPM. 



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Related legal case

Cunningham v. Bureau of Prisons