Maximum Security Prisoners Deserve Compassionate Mental Health Care

Target: Federal Bureau of Prisons director Charles E. Samuels

Goal: To introduce stricter standards of mental health care at a super-maximum security prison notorious for inmate mistreatment.

The United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Facility–better known as ADX Florence and perhaps infamous as “the Alcatraz of the Rockies”–has recently come under public scrutiny for its shockingly negligent treatment of inmates who suffer from mental disabilities and illnesses. While the prison claims to have professionals on staff for anyone who requires psychiatric care, many inmates who exhibit severe symptoms of mental illness sit in solitary confinement for years without ever being taken to see a therapist. Prisoners scream at vivid hallucinations, self-mutilate with sharp objects, and smear feces on the walls of their cells. Many attempt suicide–and many succeed.

It is the duty of the prison system to keep dangerous criminals in safe captivity, not to let them write their own death sentences after suffering severe neglect. No other kind of institution on earth would allow such obviously ill individuals to torture and kill themselves without attempting to step in and provide them with desperately-needed mental health care. Forcing these criminals to suffer alone in their cells is a cruel and unusual punishment–one that was not included in their sentencing.

Federal Bureau of Prisons director Charles E. Samuels has so far responded to the situation at ADX Florence only by writing a letter to inmates begging them not to kill themselves. Such a gesture feels hollow when these prisoners are still denied access to compassionate mental health care and adequate stimulation to relieve symptoms of illnesses like schizophrenia, major depression, and bipolar disorder. Tell Samuels that a letter is not enough; he must take action to ensure that all incarcerated individuals receive basic levels of care for serious mental disorders.


Dear Mr. Samuels,

Prisoners in solitary confinement may have lost their right to participate in civil society, but they still deserve to have their basic human needs met. No prison would torture convicted criminals by depriving them of food, water, or medical care, so why are so many inmates at ADX Florence continually denied psychiatric attention?

These inmates suffer from severe, life-threatening mental disorders, yet are forced to endure their symptoms while sitting alone in solitary confinement. Many prisoners at this hellish facility cut themselves with sharp objects and scream day and night at the blank walls of their cell. Prison guards often find the bodies of inmates who have committed suicide to escape the torture chamber of their own minds. As Americans, we find it immoral to torture prisoners physically, so why are we content to allow their mental torture?

You recently penned a letter to inmates of ADX Florence asking them not to kill themselves. While such a gesture may seem sympathetic to some, it is not enough to relieve the agony faced by these inmates every single day of their lives. More psychiatric professionals should be employed to service ADX Florence, and prison guards should be able to recommend psychiatric care for inmates who exhibit symptoms of severe mental illness. Therapy sessions should take place in-person, not via television, and not in the presence of multiple corrections officers.

Providing basic standards of psychiatric care for these criminals is the only humane and practical course of action for a troubled facility like ADX Florence. I urge you to take action in supporting the basic human rights of all American citizens, even those who have been convicted of major crimes.


[Your Name Here]

Photo credit: Thomas Hawke via Flickr.

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