“The worst of the worst.”
That’s how the Bureau of Prisons long has described inmates at the federal government’s highest security supermax, known as ADX, in Florence, Colo.
In many cases, the description fits.
The prison is filled with some of the world’s most dangerous criminals. Some have planned or carried out attacks on the World Trade Center, federal buildings, abortion clinics, university professors with mail bombs and airline passengers with a shoe bomb. Some have run drug cartels, slavery rings and prison gangs. Some escaped from other prisons, murdered fellow prisoners and strangled guards with their bare hands.
Others are troublesome to the feds in other ways. Some are outspoken and persuasive, or politically radical, or litigious, or super wealthy – so rich, the concern is, that they could afford to escape a prison from which nobody has escaped. In large part, prisoners at ADX often tend to be frustrated, angry or downright crazy.
Whether each inmate qualified as “the worst of the worst” when he arrived at ADX or became so as a result of the prison’s endless cycle of mind-numbing, soul-crushing solitary confinement – it’s semantics.
Whatever they did to land at ADX, they’re being punished as severely as anyone legally can in the United States without being put to death. The question of whether it’s cruel and unusual – especially for those with serious mental illnesses — to spend years and even decades without meaningful human contact is being argued in a civil rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Denver.
But “the worst of the worst” has taken on new meaning since September 7, when Robert Knott became at least the seventh person to take his life at the prison where he had been housed since 1995. Knott hanged himself with a bed sheet. After he was dead, autopsy photos obtained by The Independent show that prison officials cuffed his hands, locked his ankles in leg irons, and tied his waist with a belly chain and black security box.
They kept the lifeless body shackled for hours even when they moved it to St. Thomas More Hospital in Cañon City and waited for the coroner to officially declare it dead.
Coroner Carlette Brocious made the pronouncement – a formality that, although required by law, she notes in no way meant Knott was more dead than before her arrival. It was bad enough to find his corpse shackled, she said, but what exasperated her is that, despite her requests, guards refused to fully remove the restraints while she was examining the body. What makes her voice tremble with frustration is that, even after the examination, bucking her direction, they insisted on clamping down the dead man again.
“Dead is dead. He wasn’t going anywhere. He posed no threat,” Brocious says. “What part of that, I mean really, what part of it don’t they understand?”
For Brocious, it’s irrelevant which convictions people had before they die in one of the many prisons in Fremont County, which has more inmates per capita than anywhere else in the nation. Death is a rule-changer. No matter your feelings about a prisoner’s criminal past or your political beliefs, religion or occupation, she says, you honor the dead because of the simple fact that they’re dead and because, by law, social contract and human decency, we’re responsible for treating their vulnerable, lifeless bodies with respect.
This isn’t a new concept. The Bible and all manner of other religious tomes tell us to threat bodies of the dead with respect and charity. And it’s a basic tenet of police responsibility to use handcuffs and other restraints only temporarily until the threat risk has passed.
Knott, who was serving life without parole for a 1988 kidnapping spree, had a long history of serious mental illness. He had shown signs of schizophrenia and antisocial personality disorder since the early 1990s. During several stints at the BOP’s mental hospital in Springfield, Ill., he refused to bathe or wear clothes, babbled incoherently, and said he heard voices in his head commanding him to kill himself. At ADX, he spent most of his time electively mute holed up in his cell where he covered his window to keep out the sunlight. He rarely left his cell for the one hour of exercise allotted to him daily.
Shortly before Knott’s suicide, inmates on his unit noticed him howling uncharacteristically. A team of mental health workers is said to have gathered at one point outside his cell. Something was wrong and everybody knew it.
Brocious is investigating Knott’s mental health history and whether he was offered the psychological treatment he obviously needed. She said Thursday that officials still haven’t handed over Knott’s medical records and refuse to let her into the prison to interview other inmates on his unit. She says she wants to understand “what Mr. Knott was dealing with — you know, what were his demons.” Six and a half weeks after his death, she is unable to close her investigation or answer many of the questions still lingering for Knott’s family and tribe in Nebraska.
“Let’s just say I’m unhappy with the lack of cooperation. It has been almost constant at this point,” she says.
“This is the worst case scenario, even worse than the worst case scenario I’ve seen,” Brocious continued. Aside from the post-mortem shackling and guards refusing to remove the cuffs at her request, she’s also incredulous that the prison claimed Knott had no next of kin, leaving his corpse unclaimed for 18 days.
As it turned out, Knott had plenty of family and a whole tribe who, once its members learned of his death, were eager to receive his body and bury it on Winnebago land. That information was easily gleaned from a quick conversation with a woman on Knott’s contact list whom the prison apparently didn’t bother to call until more than a week after his death.
The BOP and Justice Department officials who defend them in court won’t talk about Knott, the shackling of his corpse and its treatment of mentally ill and suicidal prisoners in general. ADX’s public information officer is notoriously unreachable. Even Brocious, the coroner, can’t reach anyone on the phone system to ask about ADX’s policy as it relates to restraining the dead. The taxpayer-funded BOP cloaks its highest security prison in so much secrecy that it dispatches guards to shoo people trying to photograph it from off-grounds.
On the few occasions someone in the federal government publicly has commented about conditions at the supermax, the message is always the same. Given the difficult, dangerous inmates it houses — “the worst of the worst” — the argument goes that the prison is beyond reproach.
Nonsense, says Brocious, a veteran of dozens of prison death investigations who has plenty of reproach for a facility that hogties the deceased.
“Once I pronounce them dead, they should all be treated the same at that point – like humans, and with a certain degree of respect and kindness,” she says. “This case is wrong in so many ways. How they treated Robert Knott upsets me.”
[ Photos: ADX officials fastened handcuffs, a belly chain, a black box and leg chains onto the corpse of Robert Knott after he committed suicide last month, refusing to remove them at the coroner’s request. By Fremont County Coronor Carlette Brocious ]