D.C. inmates in federal prison file suit alleging lack of mental health care

Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST - Rodney Jones is a former D.C. prisoner who alleges he was mistreated at a federal prison in Colorado. He and a number of other mentally-ill inmates are suing the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Four D.C. inmates suffering from serious mental illnesses allege that they have been denied adequate mental health services and held improperly at the nation’s most secure “supermax” penitentiary, according to a class-action lawsuit filed in federal court.

Although regulations of the Federal Bureau of Prisons prohibit incarcerating seriously mentally ill inmates at the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX) in Florence, Colo., troubled prisoners often end up at the institution because of an inadequate screening process, the lawsuit alleges.

The D.C. inmates, housed in the federal prison system since the closure of Lorton Correctional Complex in Lorton, Va., in 2001, are among five named plaintiffs and six others described as “interested individuals.”

Three of the four D.C. inmates, including Ernest Norman Shaifer, 49, who suffers from bipolar disorder and is serving 10 years for assaulting a prison chaplain at another institution in Florence, allege that they are being denied medications for their illnesses.

“The doctors said none of this would have happened if they would have just given him some pills,” said Shaifer’s father, Carl Shaifer, referring to the prison assault that landed his son at ADX. “It was enough to break your heart.”

Edwin P. Aro, a lawyer who filed the suit last week in Colorado along with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, called the institution a “Kafkaesque nightmare.”

The Bureau of Prisons “turns a blind eye to the needs of the mentally ill at ADX and to deplorable conditions of confinement that are inhumane to these prisoners,” the lawsuit alleges. “No civilized society treats its mentally ill citizens with such deliberate indifference to their plight.”

A spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons declined to comment, saying the agency does not discuss pending litigation.

Doug Cramer, ADX’s public information officer, said that the institution does not accept mentally ill inmates.

“We do not take any inmates here that are mentally ill and unable to be housed in this situation,” Cramer said. “If they are mentally ill and have issues that preclude their being here, they are housed in other institutions or in our medical institution.”

Harold Cunningham, 41, one of the D.C. plaintiffs, alleges that he has been denied medication since his arrival at ADX in 2001. Instead, he has access to therapy classes on television and anger-management pamphlets. He was convicted in the mid-1990s and is serving life plus 380 years for murder, robbery and conspiracy.

He has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, psychotic disorder and personality disorder. A former patient at St. Elizabeths Hospital, Cunningham was taking Risperdal and Prozac but alleges that he has been denied such medications since his arrival at ADX.

Jaison Leggett, 41, another D.C. plaintiff, is serving a life sentence at ADX for first-degree sexual assault. Another former St. Elizabeths patient who tried to kill himself at that institution, Leggett has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar illness, depression and borderline personality disorder.

Michael Bacote, 37, also a D.C. plaintiff, is serving a 28-year sentence at ADX for second-degree murder. Diagnosed with mild retardation with an IQ of 61, Bacote, who is illiterate, suffers from depression and paranoia and alleges that he has been denied medication.

Rodney Jones, 43, a D.C. resident, spent five years at ADX before his release in October and can speak from firsthand experience about conditions there.

Convicted of assault in 1998, Jones was transferred to the federal system after Lorton’s closure. After allegedly assaulting an inmate at a federal prison in Pollock, La., he was sent to ADX. Mental health screening there was limited, Jones said. Three weeks after he arrived at the facility, Jones said he saw a psychologist via video chat at his own request. Though he said he previously had been taking Seroquel, a drug for bipolar disorder, he was denied the medication at ADX.

“The people that were considered psychs at ADX, we got a real raw deal,” Jones said. “I just left it. I know what goes on.”

Jones also struck up a friendship with Bacote. “I read his mail for him because he can’t read,” Jones said.

After Jones helped Bacote contact the Washington Lawyers’ Committee, Jones said he and Bacote were separated.

Jones recalled the case of another inmate at the prison he befriended whose mental illness was so serious that he repeatedly mutilated his own genitals.

“I mean, come on, man,” Jones said. “That ought to tell you right there that something is going on with this guy that ain’t right.”

 
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