Inside ADX Supermax, Part 1: “A Bloody Nightmare”

Cell at ADX federal supermax

Cell at ADX federal supermax

In June 2012, a federal lawsuit was filed by eleven prisoners at the United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX Florence) against the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The facility houses approximately 450 men from across the country in solitary confinement units. The lawsuit alleges that inmates diagnosed with mental illnesses are denied constitutionally adequate mental health treatment. The severe sensory deprivation and restricted social contact at ADX is further alleged to exacerbate mental health problems. This concern was underscored in a June 2012 US Senate hearing on solitary confinement, when Director of the BOP, Charles Samuels, testified that there were only two psychiatrists on staff at ADX.

One man in ADX, Jesse Wilson, wrote Solitary Watch after he listened to the head of the BOP testify that there weren’t mentally ill prisoners in ADX. “I heard the head of the BOP in Congress (on radio) saying they do not have insane inmates housed here, ” Wilson wrote, “This is what should be thought of as a lie. I have not slept in weeks due to these non-existing inmates beating on the walls and hollering all night.  And the most ‘non-insane’ smearing feces in their cells.”

The lawsuit is currently pending before the US District Court. Currently titled Cunningham v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, a website tracking the progress of the lawsuit provides profiles of the plaintiffs.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report in May that found federal officials hadn’t studied how long-term segregation affects those subject to it, how much it actually costs, or the extent to which it “achieves its stated purpose to protect inmates, staff and the general public.” A “snapshot estimate” provided by the BOP to the GAO  suggests that taxpayers are spending $78,000 per year, per person at ADX Florence to incarcerate them in psychologically devastating conditions.

This is notable considering that the Obama Administration is seeking to open a second federal supermax in Illinois, to be named “Administrative Maximum U.S. Penitentiary.”

Solitary Watch has been in contact with several individuals in ADX Florence, including members of the lawsuit who wanted to tell more of their story and share their perspectives. We are presenting the stories of individuals in ADX Florence in order to shed some light on just who exactly gets sent to the “Alcatraz of the Rockies.” First in this series is Harold Cunningham.

Harold Cunningham

Harold Cunningham

Harold Cunningham, ADX Control Unit, 12 Years in Solitary

Harold Cunningham, 43, is the lead plaintiff of the federal lawsuit demanding constitutionally adequate mental health care in ADX. Cunningham is serving a life sentence and has been at the ADX Control Unit since 2001. Suffering from mental health issues since the age of ten, he has since been variously diagnosed with Paranoid Schizophrenia, Psychotic Disorder NOS and Personality Disorder NOS, and has been incarcerated on and off since he was 11, including a five year prison sentence at the age of 17 for cocaine possession. Sentenced to life imprisonment in 1996 for his involvement in a series of murders and robberies, he was incarcerated at United States Penitentiary, Marion until his transfer to ADX in 2001.

While at Marion, he was at times held in solitary confinement. He complained of visual and auditory hallucinations and was prescribed anti-depressants and anti-psychotics. According to the federal lawsuit, a psychologist at USP Marion found that “Cunningham’s current mental status, emotional expression, and behavior suggest significant mental health problems.” A year later he was transported to ADX, where psychiatric drugs are not provided to inmates.

The lawsuit details that, as a consequence of the denial of psychiatric medication, his “behavior predictably worsened,” and he was cited for rules violations such as possessing weapons, assaulting corrections officers, and refusing to leave his cell. For this, he would spend five years, from 2002-2007 in even more restrictive environments within the Control Unit.

His “treatment” has thus far consisted of workbooks and programs through his television.

Cunningham wrote to Solitary Watch to tell more of his story:

What I have been through at Marion and here in the ADX Control Unit has been a bloody nightmare. Mentally and physically.

There was a bloody war going on in Marion when I arrived there, a place I should have never been sent to, I was designated to be housed at the Springfield Medical Facility. I have been taking psychotropic medication and receiving psychological therapy since the age of ten and on and off throughout my life. The war was racial, blacks against whites. The Aryan Brotherhood was warring with D.C. inmates.

I’m from Washington, D.C. and I got caught in the middle but my problem was more with the racist correctional officers who were behind everything. It was a very dangerous environment, one wrong move and you could lose your life. I was lucky, it was like living in a concrete jungle and only the strong survive. But to survive you have to become an animal and I became a monster that one one dared to fuck with.

I was sent from Marion to ADX Control Unit in 2001. I was treated and lived like an animal for years. Stripped of all my clothes for weeks at a time…just a blanket chained to my bed, water turned off, no shower at times. No food and when they did feed me it was bad food, stale bread and cheese, rotten apple…I was beaten while handcuffed. All this on and off throughout five to six years. It was an up and down roller coaster ride in a bloody nightmare. I was at war physically and mentally. I survived but now I suffer from PTSD so it’s hard for me to talk about some of the things I’ve been through. I’ve tried to block a lot of it out by escaping through writing. Every day in here is like a landmine field, one wrong step and I may snap back to that nightmare, something I don’t want to do.

I have been seeking and reaching out for help, therapy and medication that I used to be on but that’s not allowed here in the control unit. This is what my lawsuit is all about. My attorney has been working real hard to help me get the treatment I need. I’ve been here 12 years, I have less than a year left. Hopefully they will send me somewhere I can get the help I need and get involved in programs like education and writing.

Comments

  1. Alan CYA # 65085 says:

    From this article:

    “I heard the head of the BOP in Congress (on radio) saying they do not have insane inmates housed here, ” Wilson wrote, “This is what should be thought of as a lie. I have not slept in weeks due to these non-existing inmates beating on the walls and hollering all night. And the most ‘non-insane’ smearing feces in their cells.”

    “A “snapshot estimate” provided by the BOP to the GAO suggests that taxpayers are spending $78,000 per year, per person at ADX Florence to incarcerate them in psychologically devastating conditions.”

    I ask what has changed since Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) opened up in 1829. At the time it was the largest and most expensive public structure in the country and the elite opinion in the U.S. was firmly behind the idea of solitary confinement.

    Then as now, the major concern was whether the system at ESP was cost effective.

    Then as now, the arrogance of the system can be heard in the annual report of 1869, which lists the arguments against the solitary system, refutes them, and concludes, “We are justified in unequivocally asserting that the Pennsylvania system of penitentiary discipline understood and properly applied, is not injurious to the health, has no injurious influence on the mind, is neither inhuman nor cruel … and that if properly administered, it is now the most philosophic and effective system for the treatment of crime as an actual condition of persons in all societies.”

    Despite this vehement defense of the solitary system, in the period after the Civil War, the regimen at Eastern State was slowly abandoned. Historians have theorized that the rise in foreign immigrants among the prison population decreased public sympathy for prisoners and made expensive penal reform less politically popular during the postwar period.

    Have you noticed how many comments your last article on immigrates received?

    I clicked on the profile link but I found that all the profiles of the inmates from Washington, D.C. and the one man from Saipan are lacking the specifics of the crimes that they were originally sentenced for. Not that it matters but I did find it odd because all the other offender’s profiles specifically stated their crimes and documented their previous history of mental illness.

    Four were convicted for robbery and two for threatening the President.

  2. carla zavala says:

    Mr. Cunningham, Yes I agree we all make mistakes in life and you already have been forgiven.Stay strong GOD does have your back…things will change, never forget you’re under the wings of his angels….

  3. Joe Gonzalez says:

    My opinion is simple. To the individuals complaining of their conditions and treatment. Stop your sniveling, be the tough gangsters and criminals you were when you were free. You didn’t have any sympathy for your victims, some of which are dead. You knew where you were headed and didn’t care. You weren’t crying for medication and therapy when you were taking drugs so quit your damn crying now and deal with it. Be the big bad gangsters you were out here and stop acting like bitches now. Have some pride and dignity. Next time behave your self and stay free. Fucking sorry ass gangbanging bitches.

  4. Susan Williams says:

    So locking people up and treating them like crap is an answer. JUdging by the recidivism rate when people EOS form a Supermax prison (60%), it is not, and then there is the little problem of inmates housed in these close managment facilities cost more, and
    then there is the fact that many of these inmates are mentally ill and were mentally ill when they came to prison. I really don’t think that “deal with it” is an answer that addresses the problem.

  5. Joe Gonzalez says:

    Hello
    I do not think we are focusing our attention in the right area. I believe that the prisoners we are referring to have committed mulitply crimes and have made their choices. Their not kids if people make the choice to be anti social criminals and murderers then they can’t expect to be treated like Medal of Honor recepients.

  6. cbaca says:

    I find Mr Cunningham argument well thought out, intelligent, lucid and rational – and this is without medication? Hahaha interesting.

  7. Gerry says:

    Recidivism? Rehabilitation doesn’t not happen in prison. The thugs either open their eyes or get tired of the thug life. The ones that don’t return are either killed outside, find Jesus and or continue their criminal enterprise. They do not care one iota about the people they have killed or harmed, it is all about the power and the money. Prison is a deterent, as long as you keep them locked up.

  8. Joe Gonzalez says:

    Hello Gerry
    I do not see an argument with any thing you stated. I really don’t even understand what the issue is here. These prisoners would kiss the inside of their solitary confinement cells and write letters of appreciation to the BOP if they were sent to a middle Eastern country and witnessed the conditions of those institutions and the penalties for their crimes. I could not understand a coalition to save a California condemned female inmate that murdered a 4 year old girl by forcing her into a bathtub of scalding water. Sometimes I am not sure if we have all the sick people locked up. Yes let’s let her out and hire her as our daycare provider.

  9. Joe Gonzalez says:

    Ms. Williams
    I suggest you spend a little time speaking with some victim groups or even check out your seedy neighborhoods. Every city has them. Some people like crime, they enjoy hurting people, they don’t have any respect or consideration for other people. They are termed SOCIOPATHS or PSYCHOPATHS. Would you like one as your neighbor. Why don’t you go visit a few and see which one you want to marry your daughter. Let’s cut the crap lady and call it what it is, PUNISHMENT. We all know what is probably going to happens when we sell drugs or carjack, home invade, rob, rape and murder. We are probably going to prison. So yes I say DEAL WITH IT now like the big bad guys you were out here. You had your chance probably a few of them and now you are there. Prison isn’t suppose to be nice. Just be grateful you are not treated daily like you treated your victims. That will come later when you get to hell.

  10. ryan h says:

    Poor guy I feel bad for him. We all make mistakes some greater than others but we at ALL human and prone to mistakes. I have hated the united stated since bush was president and after my military service ended during that piece of shit Obamas term I left. I now live in the Philippines and have renounced my citizenship as I want nothing more to do with America. Anybody know how I can get in touch with Mr. Cunningham as I would love to pay for any help he needs or sponsor him here for a better life.

  11. DICK says:

    I’m glad that fu**nut is put away (Robert Phillip hansen)

  12. DonSuperior says:

    Joe gonzalez is clear your all for inhumane treatment but maybe if you had a dad or brother going thru 23 hour lock down you would feel bad but clearly joes family are the victims and corrections officers thats the team he cares about but ill tell you what joe gonzalez i hope your family dont ever make any mistakes because clearly you wouldnt care you probaly would send no money and never go visit them and then try to justify it to yourself saying they shouldnt have been human…ms william is right its not working we need prison reform… start by letting inmates pay for their own stay. But this is only posible if the prison industrial complex stops their legal 30cent an hour slavery because its not ok to exploit humans no matter what… i understand some inmates are evil but we are just as evil by making them worst setting them up for failure…we all know theirs no profit for the prison if we persevere

  13. Joe Gonzalez says:

    Don it gives me great satisfaction to advise you of how ignorant your statement sounds. First only a complete moron would believe that our system doesn’t need improvement. Second what is clear is that you have no experience in researching the criminal mind. I would assume that if members of your family were victimized by being carjacked, robbed, raped or murdered you would sympathized and want the criminals to be treated like celebrities. Give them a 3 star living arrangement and pamper them so when they are released they will be upstanding citizens. A large percentage of these criminals in solitary have committed multiple offenses in society and in prison. They didn’t reach that level by missing Sunday church. If any of my friends or relatives decide to commit these horrible offenses then I don’t feel sorry for them. I have met many offenders of diverse backgrounds and ages and unfortunately there are some very disturbed violent predators that if released they will only continue to victimize innocent people. The only thing that is clear in your statement is that you have no idea what you are writing about. Do a little research so your statements may have some validity.

  14. Dick says:

    Just another weak,and worthless chump who made his bed,and now has to lay in it. A punk,and a pathetic excuse for a human.

  15. Joe Gonzalez says:

    You took the words right out of me. I am glad someone feels that these sorry clowns should shut up and deal
    With it. They cry about good treatment now but they didn’t care how they treated their victims.

  16. Greg B. says:

    Dick, and Joe
    I agree with both of you guys on multiple points. Most of these jerks were tough guys on the street who wouldn’t think twice about committing a horrible crime and not give it a second thought . When caught they act like little bitches because the justice system doesn’t serve them steak an eggs for breakfast. I say three years on appeal then the chair or the needle.

  17. Joe Gonzalez says:

    Hello
    I am glad to see that there are still some righteous citizens that can recognize manipulating scumbags. Let me mention that a high percentage of these gangsters that did their dirt to get locked up are now in protective custody, sensitive needs or what ever else they want to call those weak sissy yards they run too for protection. I challenge any of these sniveling punk inmates crying for better accommodations and treatment to write in detail the crimes they committed to get where they are today. Share those stories with us Tell us how you carjacked some poor innocent lady, how you sold drugs to kids, how you did that drive by and killed an innocent child, how you home invaded some nice family and terrorized them while you were stealing their property or how about molesting children or assaulting helpless women. Be the big bad men you try to be out here and tell us about the crime you committed. I bet not one of you has the guts to do this. Sorry ass little sniveling bitches.

  18. Jean Casella and James Ridgeway says:

    Comments on this post have been closed and the last two comments deleted. It is our policy to delete comments that contain threats to other readers. You can say anything you want about our posts, but you cannot use our site to threaten to do harm to others.

  19. Joe Gonzales says:

    To Solitarywatch and it’s readers. Let me apologize for my inappropriate response. I should be use to being challenged and insulted but even after all these years it does require an excessive amount of restraint. I enjoy your forum and for the most part I believe your readers to be educated and mature. Unfortunately one slips through once in a while. So please accept my apology for lowering my intellect to a level I do not admire.
    Thank you

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