Seriously mentally ill inmates at the U.S. penitentiary at Lewisburg are being given word games and Sudoku puzzles instead of treatment and medication, according to a class action lawsuit filed against the federal bureau of prisons.
The suit, filed by the DC Prisoner’s Project of the Washington Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, claims prisoners received minimal interaction with counselors, often just a minute or two each week and through cell doors.
Men with lifetime histories of schizophrenia, paranoia, bipolar disorder, depression and other serious mental conditions often receive no treatments at all and are held in cells, often with another inmate, for 23 hours or more a day. Instead of treatment, the suit alleges, these inmates receive Sudoku puzzles, word games and coloring pages.
Treatments and medications at other BOP institutions are discontinued without explanation when inmates arrive at Lewisburg, the suit said.
“The isolation of prisoners with mental illness and the denial of necessary treatment is cruel, inhumane and serves no legitimate security purpose,” said Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyer’s Committee. “Across the nation, prison officials are recognizing the severe harm created by these types of isolation practices and the cost to the system and public safety. It is long past time for the bureau of prisons to reform its practices.”
The three individual plaintiffs in the case had each been previously diagnosed with serious mental conditions. Despite these prior diagnoses, none is currently receiving adequate treatment or medicine for mental illness.
One of the plaintiffs, Jusamuel Rodriguez McCreary, has attempted suicide twice in the last three months. A year ago, according to the suit, the BOP assigned him to a facility intended for inmates with mental illness, yet he remains at Lewisburg in a cell protected by two doors, completely isolated from human contact.
The Lewisburg prison currently houses about 1,090 prisoners. In 2009, it was designated a special management unit, or SMU, and began housing the most violent and difficult inmates from within the federal prison system, who are kept in two-person cells that are about eight feet by 11 feet for 23 hours a day.
The suit alleges that despite the BOP’s written policies that keep inmates with serious illness from being placed in the SMU, these inmates are placed in the program and being denied adequate treatment.
“They’ve made changes (to the policies) on paper, but inmates are still not getting treatment of any kind,” said Phil Fornaci, director of the DC Prisoner’s Project. “There’s all sorts of madness going on, it doesn’t make any sense.”
The lawsuit seeks to compel the BOP to comply with its own policies regarding the placement and treatment of inmates suffering from mental illness and to define the minimal level of care and treatment for those in custody.
David Sprout, a paralegal with the Lewisburg Prison Project, an inmate advocacy group, said he’s hopeful the lawsuit will address the mistreatment of inmates at the prison, but expressed concern for them.
“We are concerned for the safety of the named plaintiffs in the current lawsuit because retaliation for guys who file lawsuits is real. We hope that the regional director or the central office of the BOP will make sure men are not retaliated against and (they) will be moved out of USP Lewisburg,” he said.
Sprout also said the failure of the BOP to follow its own policies regarding the treatment of mentally ill inmates puts correctional officers at risk and makes their job more difficult.
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