Supermax prisoner Robert Knott finds family after death
Prison officials kept him shackled hours after he hanged himself. The feds claimed he had no kin. It took a former pen pal to reunite him with the family and the tribe that never knew him.
It’s Ho-Chunk custom to honor their dead with a four-day, four-night ceremony.
But there was no such service for Robert Knott, who returned to his Winnebago tribe 18 days too late to bury in its tradition — and more than 40 years too late to have been saved from a cycle of mental illness and extreme isolation.
Knott, 48, hanged himself Sept. 7 at ADX, the federal supermax in Florence, Colo., known as the world’s highest security prison. Serving life without parole for a 1988 kidnapping spree, he was diagnosed in 1990 with severe mental illness. Records show that the Bureau of Prisons committed him to its mental hospital in Missouri at least seven times, yet repeatedly sent him back into solitary confinement in Colorado to spend months and years without regular human contact or mental health treatment.
ADX officials didn’t answer Fremont County Coroner Carlette Brocious’ repeated questions about Knott, his history, who to contact and what to do with his body. They wouldn’t give her his middle name (Gerald). They said he had no family. As his corpse sat in a mortuary freezer, prison staff waited 11 days before calling the only person on Knott’s contact list — an old pen pal who hadn’t heard from him in a decade.
“Robert Knott was kind and hurt and lonely and talented and needy,” said Carol Strick, a former art historian who corresponded with Knott until about 2003. “He buckled under the pain and torture from isolation and abuse.”
When the prison chaplain asked if Strick wanted his body or belongings, she declined.
“There’s only one place for Robert,” she told him. “And that’s the tribe.”
How to disappear in America
Home had a tenuous meaning for Knott, whose mother, Corabelle Young, had five young kids when she left with a man named Robert Orr, who wasn’t their father. She then gave birth to Robert Gerald Orr and another baby boy, whom she tried to care for while protecting herself from the abuse their father subjected her to. When Robert Jr. was about four, records show his mother shot and killed his father in front of him. The brothers apparently were separated from each other and moved through the foster system until Robert Jr. was adopted by a man and woman named Knott, who died in a plane crash when he was 15. By then, he was smoking pot, drinking booze and had been expelled several times since in the sixth grade. He spent the rest of his adolescence on his own, in and out of the juvenile justice system, with what records show were “significant behavioral problems.” After the death of his adopted parents, he reportedly blew his $40,000 inheritance on drugs. He was transient and in and out of treatment programs before he went on the interstate kidnapping spree that, at age 23, landed him in prison with a life sentence.
The kidnapping lasted nine-days and ended in a police shootout in Washington that killed Knott’s accomplice. The spree was the subject of a 1991 TV movie, “Captive,” with actor John Stamos playing Knott. The movie failed to say much about his background or mental illness.
In a 1994 letter to Strick, he briefly referred to his crime, writing, “It’s in the past and I feel badly.”
Knott started showing signs of schizophrenia and antisocial personality disorder early on. In 1992, officers at the United States Penitentiary at Marion, Ill., noted that Knott was cutting himself and found him hanging from his cell bars to protect his body from “white bugs.” In April 1995, the Bureau transferred him the new federal supermax, ADX. At first, he wrote Strick that he was relieved to be in such a clean, modern cell. But, soon, he started complaining about the extreme isolation of the prison, where inmates are kept alone in their cells 23 hours a day. They’re allowed to spend the 24th hour exercising by themselves in an outdoor cage.
Strick said that solitary confinement quickly broke Knott down. From his letters, she noticed that “his mind started slipping.”
One Bureau document shows that, by 2002, he had been admitted to the United States Penitentiary at Springfield, the federal prison system’s mental hospital, seven times for severe psychotic illness.
During one of his stints there, a mental health care worker wrote that Knott had been placed on suicide watch at ADX six weeks prior to his hospitalization. His “medical condition has substantially deteriorated during the past several months. His speech and writings reflect severe disorganization of his thoughts. His behaviors are disorganized. He frequently refuses to wear clothes. He has been only sporadically compliant with his regimen of psychiatric medications,” according to his evaluation.
Records also show that Knott was “electively mute” for unspecified periods of time. He refused to speak to prison officials on the rare occasions when they spoke to him.
A corrections officer at Springfield once pointed out that Knott was “babbling incoherently at his door, changing voices and tones randomly.”
“His personal hygiene is abysmal,” the officer added, noting that Knott had flushed parts of his unit’s telephone down his toilet.
During another commitment at Springfield, Knott was reported to have broken the sprinkler head in his room, drunk dirty water from the bottom of a shower and attempted to pull the arm of a corrections officer through the food slot in his cell door. On yet another stay, he said voices in his head were commanding him to kill himself.
“His symptoms clearly preclude his ability to function adequately in a regular Bureau of Prisons facility at this time,” Richard L. DeMier, clinical psychologist, wrote in April 2002.
Time and time again, Knott would be treated and sent back to ADX to live alone in a cell the size of a king-sized mattress. It’s unclear how many times Knott broke down in the 11 subsequent years for which records about his mental health aren’t available.
Letters to ‘Ma’
Knott, the convicted kidnapper, and Strick, an expert in ancient Egyptian art, connected through a personal ad in one of the alternative “zines” that were popular among artists in the early 1990s. Knott’s posting, which read “Indian prisoner artist seeks pen pal,” interested her.
“His art meant the world to him. We had that in common. I thought why not…,” she said.
Their correspondence consisted mainly of etchings by Knott that came postmarked from Marion and then Florence. In one letter, Strict said, Knott told her he had been eager to be sent west from Illinois to Colorado.
“He wrote about flying over the mountains, looking down at the Earth. He was an Indian and he loved nature. That flight was one of the high points in his life,” Strick said.
Of the many prisoners Strick has corresponded with through the years, Knott stood out both for the politeness in his letters and the sadness that came through in his artwork. Over time, the man who had been separated from his mother as a young boy took to calling Strick, a generation his elder, “Ma.”
She helped him as much as possible, encouraging his artwork by sending art supplies. She also sent pictures of Seka, a popular porn star in the 1970s and 80s with whom Knott was smitten. Strick lived in New York at the time, and would scour porn shops on 42nd Street searching for images of the platinum blond that had caught his fancy.
“She was a knockout,” Strick said. “You gotta give Robert credit. He had good taste.”
At points, Knott’s interest in his artwork waned.
“I don’t need anything ma. Save your money, ma. I don’t need any water color paints or a radio either. I don’t want a radio or water color paints. I wish that my prayers should be answered – you’d be healthy again. That’s what want. I want for my birthday, for you to have been taking your pain medication for at least a month by then. That’s all I ever wanted or needed in my life,” he wrote in 1994.
Strick felt a bond with Knott, even though they had never been allowed to meet in person. Because they had no relationship before his imprisonment, she couldn’t visit him.
After Knott’s series of commitments at the Springfield mental hospital, she said he was “so tanked up on drugs” that his meticulous drawings morphed into scribbles and his once tight, neat handwriting turned into large, unintelligible scrawl.
“I realized that he was losing his fine motor coordination. He couldn’t draw or write anymore. Each letter got worse and worse until they didn’t come any more.”
He stopped writing in 2003. She figured he was too sick to stay in contact.
To this day, Knott’s artwork still haunts Strick. He sent her dozens, if not hundreds, of drawings and paintings, depicting himself as a Native American being brutalized by guards. She describes the piles of artwork as “basically an autobiography in the form of drawings.”
“I remember it dawned on me when I got the first one that in all my years working in the art world, I had never seen such sorrow,” she said. “I realized that you had to have lived through that sorrow, I mean really suffered, to have put it down on paper.”
The missing years
It’s unclear, at least from public records, what happened to inmate 17508-086 in the decade he lost touch with the outside world. Unlike state prison systems, the federal system posts no pictures of its inmates. There may be no photo of Knott that has come out of the prison in a decade.
ADX is only a few miles from Florence, 36 miles from Pueblo and 100 miles from Denver. But, practically speaking, Knott – locked down in his solitary cell – was about as isolated as you can get for 18 and a half years.
What little is known about him over the decade comes from the prisoners housed on his unit. Ed Aro, the lead attorney in a class action lawsuit challenging ADX’s treatment of the mentally ill, has interviewed other men housed on Knott’s tier. They describe Knott as extremely quiet and reclusive, rarely if ever leaving his cell to exercise and preferring to cover his small window for darkness, Aro told The Independent. During the last week of Knott’s life, inmates told Aro that Knott’s behavior markedly changed. He apparently went off his medications and uncharacteristically started screaming and yelling in his cell.
Exactly what Knott was screaming about, feeling or experiencing remains a mystery, at least to those outside the Bureau of Prisons. Knott left no suicide note explaining his decision. He wrote one word, in toothpaste, on his wall before hanging himself with a sheet attached to his cell bars: “HEAVEN.”
He is at least the seventh prisoner to take his own life at ADX.
The long way home
Brocious, the Fremont coroner, has seen plenty of prison deaths. After all, Fremont houses more prisoners per capita than any county in the nation.
Before Knott’s death, she said it was protocol for ADX to call the coroner into the prison when an inmate died. She realized things had changed on the night of Sept. 7 when, after paramedics had determined in the prison that Knott was dead, she was told to meet the body at St. Thomas More Hospital in Cañon City to formally pronounce his death.
Brocious was struck by what she saw when she arrived. Not the many Native American symbols tattooed onto Knott’s body. Nor the deep, jagged scar on the side of his head. But the fact that Knott, who by then had been dead for hours, was still shackled in tight handcuffs and leg chains. She asked the corrections officers who had accompanied the body to remove the restraints. They refused, agreeing only to unlock one at a time so she could take off Knott’s clothes and examine his body. After each, they would relock the restraint.
Brocious is furious.
“Once I pronounce someone is dead, once I make that statement, they’re dead. Let’s be real. You don’t have to keep a dead man shackled like that. You take the stuff off and show him some basic human respect,” she said.
Nobody at ADX – including Randal Mitchell, the public information officer – has answered the Independent’s inquiries about Knott’s suicide. U.S. Attorney John Walsh’s office also declined comment.
The feds were similarly unresponsive to Brocious when she asked what to do with the body. She had been told, as had others, that Knott had no next of kin.
It apparently took the prison 11 days to contact Strick, the only person on Knott’s contact list. It was she, not prison officials, who found Knott’s family in Winnebago, Nebraska.
Elizabeth Pliss, Knott’s half sister, had known from her mother – with whom she reunited in 2007 before her mother’s death – that somewhere she had a half brother named Robert. But neither knew what happened to him.
In one phone call, Strick told Pliss about her connection to Knott, his background as a child, his criminal history, his challenges living with a mental illness during 18 years of extreme solitary confinement, and his suicide.
Pliss burst into tears during that phone call – and in many subsequent calls – about the brother she never met. Sadness turns to anger when she describes a call from ADX trying to piece together basic information about a man it had imprisoned since 1995, the year the Internet entered public consciousness.
“How does someone get so lost that nobody knows who you are? It’s sad. It’s just very sad,” she said.
Pliss – an active member of the Ho-Chunk Nation who supervises the food and beverage department in the tribe’s casino — insisted Knott be buried on tribal lands.
“Imagine trying to go through a life after watching your mom kill your dad with a gun in your house. If I knew what happened to him, if I knew he was in prison, I’d have been writing and doing everything I could to help him,” she said, pausing to catch her breath as she sobbed. “Robert had such a horrible, horrible life, he needs to come home as soon as possible.”
Knott’s body was sent to her care. A traditional tribal burial would have included a fire that would have been kept aflame in his memory for four days and nights. But that ritual was out of the question 19 days after his death. So Pliss arranged a small service on Sept. 26 at the Ho-Chunk Community Center for relatives who never knew the brother, nephew and cousin who strayed so far and whose story they couldn’t have imagined.
An uncle, Ho-Chunck medicine man Warner Earth, led the service, asking a designated “fireman” to bring a pot of hot embers from a fire so he could sprinkle cedar on them to make smoke. While praying, Earth took an eagle feather and fanned the smoke onto Knott’s body, and then on the pallbearers and then the whole family. As is tradition, Knott’s relatives motioned with their arms to spread the smoke over themselves.
Earth pronounced that Knott was in heaven and then he was buried.
Pliss spoke at the gathering.
“I just told them he was, he was like a lost child. We didn’t know. We didn’t know. If we knew, we would have done more to prevent some of the stuff that happened to him,” she said. “I had never heard of the ADX before this came up. What is that place? What do they do to people there?”
Strick, who was named an honorary pallbearer for pointing the way to Knott’s home, had harsher words for the prison.
“ADX should be shut down. No one should be warehoused in solitary confinement like a zombie.”
Aro, the Denver lawyer leading the ADX lawsuit, has been outspoken about what he calls the facility’s catastrophic errors in managing and treating mental illness. He points out that the Bureau’s policies prohibit placing people with schizophrenia in long-term solitary confinement.
“This suicide shows why,” he said. “By putting Robert Knott at the ADX, the Bureau killed him just as surely as if the government had put a gun to his head.”
Aro said he learned from the Bureau that Knott was on a list of potential prisoners to be transferred to a mental health treatment program in Atlanta. Clearly, the department was too late.
Brocious calls ADX’s handling of Knott’s death “the worst case scenario.” She plans to meet with prison officials and continues to investigate what she describes as a “funky lack of information” in Knott’s case.
“I couldn’t get the information I needed on him. My calls about where he should go weren’t getting returned. The family wasn’t notified. He just sat there in the mortuary with nobody doing anything,” she said. “Unfortunately for Robert Knott, everything, and I mean everything, fell apart.”
[ Images: Top photo, Robert Knott funeral by Elizabeth Pliss; bottom, prison drawings by Robert Knott ]
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