American Gulag?

Treatment of Mentally Ill Prisoners

Today on BreakPoint I’ll explain why you should care what happens to the mentally ill in our nation’s prisons. Please stay tuned.

Listen Now | Download

Eric Metaxas

Suppose I told you that there was an institution where the mentally ill “interminably wail, scream and bang on the walls of their cells” and “mutilate their bodies with razors, [and] shards of glass?” Where inmates . . . “carry on delusional conversations with voices they hear in their heads,” and no one does anything to help.

You might think I was quoting a description of conditions at London’s Bethlem Royal Hospital during the 17th century, from which our word “bedlam” is derived.

But actually such a place exists today, right here in the United States.

That place is ADX-Florence, a federal prison in Colorado better known as the “Supermax.” I was quoting from the complaint in a lawsuit filed on behalf of five mentally-ill inmates at the prison.

You may have heard of the Supermax: It’s where many of the most notorious federal prisoners, such Theodore Kaczynski, are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.

But many, if not most, of the inmates at ADX-Florence will eventually be released. So while the alleged mistreatment of mentally-ill prisoners is in and of itself unconscionable, it is highly possible that it could be injurious to the very people authorities are charged with protecting: namely us. Because releasing an untreated mentally-ill offender back into the community is inviting tragedy.

In theory, mentally-ill prisoners should not be serving time at ADX-Florence. As Andrew Cohen wrote in the Atlantic Monthly, “Federal policy prohibits inmates with serious mental illness from being transferred” to the Supermax.

But sadly this policy is not always adhered to. To make matters worse, the mentally ill have no access to the psychotropic medications they need, because these types of drugs are prohibited in the prison’s control unit.

Anyone who has known someone with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder will realize that this is bad news. When the mentally-ill prisoners start acting as if they were, well, mentally ill, the response, as alleged in the complaint, can include being “chained by the arms and legs to a concrete block often for extended periods . . . [they] are often left to urinate and defecate on themselves, and are denied basic nutrition.”

Even if only some of these allegations are true, the situation is dehumanizing and unacceptable. And, what we know – or should know – about the treatment of mentally-ill prisoners lends credence to their allegations. When the Supreme Court ordered California to reduce its prison population in 2010, it cited the treatment of mentally-ill prisoners as evidence that overcrowding made conditions in California prisons a form of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

The question is: Do we really care? Sadly, most Americans don’t. After all, the people in ADX-Florence have all committed serious crimes. But as Cohen noted, the Constitution doesn’t carve out exceptions for people convicted of serious offenses.

Nor does the Gospel. In fact, we are promised that we will be judged by whether or not we respond as Jesus would to their suffering, whether we care enough to act. That’s why Chuck Colson founded Prison Fellowship and its criminal justice reform ministry, Justice Fellowship.

In my next broadcast, I’ll explain part of what’s driving what Cohen calls the “American Gulag.” Here’s a hint: the love of it is the root of all sorts of evil.

In the meantime, please go to JusticeFellowship.org to learn more about Justice Fellowship’s work for biblically based justice reform—and how you can help.


Further Reading and Information

An American Gulag: Descending into Madness at Supermax
Andrew Cohen | The Atlantic | July 18, 2012

Death, Yes, but Torture at Supermax?
Andrew Cohen | The Atlantic | June 4, 2012

Supermax: The Constitution and Mentally Ill Prisoners
Andrew Cohen | The Atlantic | June 20, 2012

Justice Fellowship
Advocating for Criminal Justice Reform | Prison Fellowship, Justice Fellowship


I think you should check your facts on the Administrative Maximum Security Penitentiary, an institution of the Federal Correctional Complex Florence, CO. I am a BOP Chaplain and work very closely with a BOP Psychologist who worked at the ADX (Not called "the supermax") "The Supermax" is a CA state prison. What you discribed in your most recent post is something called "four point" restraint. It is the restraint of last resort for inmates who pose a threat to themselves of staff and are otherwise uncontrolable. While it is true that there were the days of the "Cowboys" at the ADX out living that blot on American Corrections is hard. You post putting forward lies and exagerations does not help the matter. Their is a progression we use in the BOP. When inmates pose a threat to themselves. Level One: Suicide watch. 100% eyes on suppervision of inmate in a locked room with nothing that can be used as a whepon.
Level Two: Suicide dress, everything same as befor, but they are placed is an ambulatory restrant system. The system is designed to not harm the inmate while preventing him from harming himself.
Level three: Progressive pasive restraint. This is where we get physical, and actually have officers with hands on the inmate. If this cannot be done and maintain the officers safety then we move to four poits.
Level Four: Four point or hard room restraint. This is also where particularly violent inmates arrive primarily for control, but the disciplanary nature is there as well. This restraint is meant to not last more the four hours usually less than one. In the ADX and the kind of inmates housed their the average times in hard restraints would typically be longer, and yes, frequently inmates deficate and urinate in these restraints, though it is ussually voluntary, and meant to annoy staff. While in restraints staff make frequent safety inspections of the inmate, and medical keeps a close watch on the inmate. If an inmate is kept in hard restraints even a minute longer than required to control the physically dangerous outburst the Lt. and Senior office are ussually disciplined (translation: demoted if they're lucky, fired if less lucky, and in prisoned themselves most often.) At best your alegations regarding the ADX are regurgitations from the days of the Cowboy staff in the 80's and early 90's many of those staff are the inmates in the ADX, and most likely lies. I would would have expected that your association with Prison and Justice Fellowship you would have looked up these policies and proceedures before attacking us. BOP staff rely and PF and JF and now we have been bitten by the hand that was feeding us. As an administrator I am worried now that you have now given the administration the opportunity to remove your light and witness from Federal Prisons. Check your facts and choose your words carefully, the BOP's top admin. is looking for any reason to remove you and any other Bible Believers they can from the BOP.