Suit Exposes Horrors at Our Only Federal Supermax

Severe mental illness rampant at ADX: lawsuit
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 27, 2015 1:35 PM CDT
Updated Mar 29, 2015 7:00 PM CDT
Suit Exposes Horrors at Our Only Federal Supermax
This Oct. 7, 2014, photo shows Supermax, known as the "Alcatraz of the Rockies," near Florence, Colo.   (AP Photo, Tracy Harmon/Pueblo Chieftain)

What goes on inside American's only federal supermax—the Administrative Maximum Facility, or ADX, in Florence, Colo., where inmates spend 23 hours a day in solitary confinement—has largely been shielded from the rest of the world. An in-depth New York Times Magazine look into the prison changes that, and the revelations make for tough reading. They're spun out of a landmark lawsuit, the largest filed against the Bureau of Prisons: It alleges ADX is illegally housing prisoners who "show evidence of significant mental disorder." The suit was taken up by the DC Prisoners' Project and the law firm Arnold & Porter following an email from an inmate. Ed Aro, a partner with Arnold & Porter, wanted a "face" for the suit (which features six "primary" inmates, plus backups), and in 2011 he found it, he says, in Jack Powers.

After Powers' businesses went under in the late '80s, he was convicted of robbing banks; while in an Atlanta prison, a friend was murdered by members of the Aryan Brotherhood. He testified against them and developed PTSD (he had no prior history of mental illness). An escape attempt landed him in ADX in 2001. An abbreviated version of the Times' jarring explainer of what came next:

  • "Over the next decade, Powers, by any rational accounting, lost his mind. He cut off both earlobes, chewed off a finger, sliced through his Achilles' tendon, pushed staples into his face and forehead, swallowed a toothbrush, and then tried to cut open his abdomen to retrieve it and injected what he considered 'a pretty fair amount of bacteria-laden fluid' into his brain cavity after smashing a hole in his forehead. In 2005, after slicing open his scrotum and removing a testicle, Powers was sent to the medical center for federal prisoners in Springfield, Mo., for treatment, where a psychiatrist determined he was 'not in need of inpatient psychiatric treatment or psychotropic medication.'"
When motions to dismiss were denied in 2013, federal lawyers proposed a settlement. Aro and his team outlined 27 points (none financial) they wanted tackled; Aro, as of this month, reported being optimistic about a settlement, but he's not convinced a trial would happen. Some changes have been instituted, though. For more on those, Powers, and other allegations, read the full article. (More prison stories.)

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