Later On

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Inside America’s Toughest Federal Prison

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Mark Binelli reports in the NY Times Magazine:

In prison, Rodney Jones told me, everyone had a nickname. Jones’s was Saint E’s, short for St. Elizabeths, the federal psychiatric hospital in Washington, best known for housing John Hinckley Jr. after he shot Ronald Reagan. Jones spent time there as well, having shown signs of mental illness from an early age; he first attempted suicide at 12, when he drank an entire bottle of Clorox. Later, he became addicted to PCP and crack and turned to robbery to support his habit.

I met Jones a few blocks from his childhood home in LeDroit Park, a D.C. neighborhood not far from Howard University. It was a warm October afternoon, but Jones, 46, was wearing a puffy black vest. The keys to his grandmother’s house, where he currently lives, hung from a lanyard around his neck. His face was thin, a tightly cropped beard undergirding prominent cheekbones, and he had a lookout’s gaze, drifting more than darting but always alert.

Jones had been out of prison for three years, a record for him, at least as an adult, but he still sounded a bit like Rip Van Winkle as he marveled at how gentrified his old neighborhood had become. We sat on a cafe’s sun-dappled terrace, surrounded by creative-class types. A chef wandered outside to pluck some fresh rosemary from a planter. Jones was the only black patron at the cafe and probably the only person who remembered when it used to be a liquor store. “You wouldn’t be sitting here,” Jones said. He nodded at some toddlers playing across the street. “That park right there, that wasn’t a park. That was just an open field where everybody gambled. At any given time, you would hear shots ring out.”

From the age of 15, Jones found himself in and out of juvenile detention, St. Elizabeths or prison — never free for much longer than a month or so. The outside world came to feel terrifying; once, he wanted to get back inside so badly, he bought a bag of crack and called the cops on himself. “That was the world that I knew,” he said.

It hadn’t been easy for Jones to transition back to a life of freedom. He managed to stick it out, he said, because he was determined not to return to the place where he spent the final eight years of his last sentence: the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colo., known more colloquially as the ADX. The ADX is the highest-security prison in the country. It was designed to be escape-proof, the Alcatraz of the Rockies, a place to incarcerate the worst, most unredeemable class of criminal — “a very small subset of the inmate population who show,” in the words of Norman Carlson, the former director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, “absolutely no concern for human life.” Ted Kaczynski and the Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph call the ADX home. The 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui is held there, too, along with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing mastermind Ramzi Yousef; the Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols; the underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab; and the former Bonanno crime-family boss Vincent Basciano. Michael Swango, a serial-killing doctor who may have poisoned 60 of his patients, is serving three consecutive life sentences; Larry Hoover, the Gangster Disciples kingpin made famous by rappers like Rick Ross, is serving six; the traitorous F.B.I. agent Robert Hanssen, a Soviet spy, 15.

Along with such notorious inmates, prisoners deemed serious behavioral or flight risks can also end up at the ADX — men like Jones, who in 2003, after racking up three assault charges in less than a year (all fights with other inmates) at a medium-security facility in Louisiana, found himself transferred to the same ADX cellblock as Kaczynski.

Inmates at the ADX spend approximately 23 hours of each day in solitary confinement. Jones had never been so isolated before. Other prisoners on his cellblock screamed and banged on their doors for hours. Jones said the staff psychiatrist stopped his prescription for Seroquel, a drug taken for bipolar disorder, telling him, “We don’t give out feel-good drugs here.” Jones experienced severe mood swings. To cope, he would work out in his cell until he was too tired to move. Sometimes he cut himself. In response, guards fastened his arms and legs to his bed with a medieval quartet of restraints, a process known as four-pointing.

One day in 2009, Jones was in the rec yard and spotted Michael Bacote, a friend from back home. The familiar face was welcome but also troubling. Bacote was illiterate, with an I.Q. of only 61, and suffered from acute paranoia. He had been sent to the ADX for his role as a lookout in a murder at a Texas prison, and he was not coping well. His multiple requests for transfers or psychological treatment had been denied. He was convinced that the Bureau of Prisons was trying to poison him, so he was refusing meals and medication. “You would have to be blind and crazy yourself not to see that this guy had issues,” Jones said, shaking his head. “He can barely function in a normal setting. His comprehension level was pretty much at zero.”

Bacote had paperwork from previous psychiatric examinations, so Jones went to the prison’s law library (a room with a computer) and looked up the address of a pro bono legal-aid group he had heard about, the D.C. Prisoners’ Project. Because Bacote couldn’t write, Jones ghosted a query. “I suppose to have a hearing before coming to the ADX,” Jones, as Bacote, wrote. “They never gave me a hearing.” He continued, “I need some help cause I have facts! Please help me.”

The story of the largest lawsuit ever filed against the United States Bureau of Prisons begins, improbably enough, with this letter. Deborah Golden, the director of the D.C. Prisoners’ Project, fields approximately 2,000 requests each year, but Bacote’s, which she received in October 2009, caught her eye. “I thought I might be missing something, because it was inconceivable to me that the Bureau of Prisons could be operating in such a blatantly illegal and unconstitutional manner,” she said. Golden was referring to B.O.P. regulations that forbid the placement of inmates who “show evidence of significant mental disorder” in prisons like the ADX.

Groups like Golden’s D.C. Prisoners’ Project tend to focus their reform efforts on state-run prisons — in part because the Prison Litigation Reform Act, passed by Congress in 1996, made it more difficult for prisoners to file federal lawsuits, and in part because the federal government possesses, as Golden put it, “an inexhaustible supply of resources.” A droll 42-year-old attorney who once considered rabbinical school, Golden has spent her entire career practicing human rights law. As she investigated Bacote’s claims, she came to realize there were dozens of inmates at the ADX with comparable stories, or worse: cases of self-mutilation, obvious psychosis, suicide. Her organization had never considered filing such an enormous suit. Because it is so difficult to win cases against the federal government, challenging the B.O.P. “just didn’t fit into anyone’s strategic goals,” Golden explained. The last major B.O.P. lawsuit to result in a settlement was in the mid-’90s (Lucas v. White, brought by a group of female inmates who had been sexually assaulted). But the clarity of Bacote’s claims gave her pause. “A lot of cases we see involve matters of interpretation: Who knew what and when,” she said. “This didn’t seem to involve that kind of uncertainty. I wasn’t sure if we had a chance. But it seemed like a court had to see it.”

Since opening in 1994, the ADX has remained not just the only federal supermax but also the apogee of a particular strain of the American penal system, wherein abstract dreams of rehabilitation have been entirely superseded by the architecture of control. Throughout our country’s history, there have been different ideas about what to do with the “worst of the worst” of our criminal offenders, ranging from the 19th-century chain gangs, who toiled in enforced silence, to the physical isolation of Alcatraz Island. The use of solitary confinement in the United States emerged as a substitute to corporal punishments popular at the end of the 18th century. The practice was first promoted in 1787, by a group of . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 March 2015 at 4:15 pm

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