It was sick enough that the federal Bureau of Prisons let Robert Knott degenerate so far that he killed himself in its ADX supermax after plenty of warning signs.
But things got even sicker when prison official shackled Knott’s dead body – and insisted on keeping it tied up long after he was declared dead. And the case grew sicker still when prison officials waited 11 days before bothering to notify the only person on Knott’s contact list that he had died.
For the feds’ long string of hideous missteps, the U.S. Justice Department has agreed to pay $175,000 to make a civil lawsuit filed by Knott’s family go away.
“By leaving Mr. Knott to languish in solitary confinement for over a decade without adequate mental health treatment, and then ignoring obvious signs that Mr. Knott was psychologically deteriorating in the weeks and days leading up to his suicide, the conduct of certain current and former employees and contractors of the Federal Bureau of Prisons directly led to Mr. Knott’s pain, suffering, and death,” reads the complaint in the federal civil suit that records show was settled last month.
The Colorado Independent first reported in a September, 2013 article entitled “The Quietest Death” that Knott, 48, had hanged himself with a bedsheet in his cell at ADX, the federal supermax in Florence, Colorado. The prison is known as the most secure in the country. But, as Knott’s death tragically showed, it’s none too safe for inmates whose mental illnesses are exacerbated by ADX’s conditions of extreme solitary confinement.
Knott’s trauma started early – at about age 4, when his mother shot and killed his father in front of her son. Knott was separated from his brother and meandered through the foster system until he was adopted by a couple who died in a plane crash when he was 15. He spent the rest of his adolescence on his own, in and out of legal trouble until he went on a nine-day, interstate kidnapping spree that ended in a police shootout in Washington that killed Knott’s accomplice. The 1988 kidnapping was the subject of a 1991 TV movie, “Captive,” with actor John Stamos playing Knott.
In real life, Knott essentially disappeared at age 23 into the federal system, where he was sentenced to life. The BOP diagnosed him in 1992 with schizophrenia and antisocial personality disorder – conditions for which officials had him committed to the system’s mental hospital in Missouri at least seven times before, like clockwork, releasing him back to solitary confinement.
It has been well known in the halls of power that long-term isolation causes psychological harm.
As early as 1890, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in by freeing James Medley, a Colorado man sentenced to death for killing his wife, on grounds that his stint in isolation had harmed him psychologically. “This matter of solitary confinement is not…a mere unimportant regulation as to the safe-keeping of the prisoner,” the court ruled. “A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.”
Since the 1950s, a number of experiments and studies have confirmed the devastating psychological effects of extended solitary confinement. A United Nations report from 2011 declared extended solitary confinement to be a form of torture. In 2012, and again in 2014, the Senate Judiciary Committee convened hearings to assess the psychological impact of solitary confinement. And recently, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy called for re-examination of our nation’s practice of long-term solitary confinement, emphasizing that “[y]ears on end of near total isolation exact a terrible price.”
ADX – known for housing the “worst of the worst,” the most notorious domestic and foreign terrorists – was once described by its own former warden as “a clean version of hell.” Prisoners there are confined 22 to 24 hours a day to their individual 12-by-7 foot cells, which have a single four-inch wide window with views only of the sky so inmates can’t discern their specific location within the prison. Meals and mail – when mail is allowed – are delivered through a slot in the door. Inmates who are allowed outdoor exercise do so alone, in cages.
In 1999, the Department of Justice’s National Institute of Corrections recommended that “insofar as possible, mentally ill inmates should be excluded from” solitary confinement facilities, which may be “unnecessary, and even counterproductive, for this population.” For this reason, BOP policy states that “[i]nmates currently diagnosed as suffering from serious psychiatric illnesses should not be referred for placement at . . . ADX Florence.”
But, as Knott’s and other cases illustrate, this policy is routinely disregarded.
At the time of Knott’s suicide, ADX had no psychiatrist on staff. Inmates in need of treatment were provided sessions via teleconference during which they were chained and surrounded by guards. Many with severe mental illnesses chose not to partake in counseling and instead were provided self-help workbooks with titles such as “Breaking Barriers” and “Cage your Rage” – which hardly constitutes meaningful treatment.
“The consequences of this deficiency in mental health care at ADX were tragically obvious,” the complaint in Knott’s case reads. “Inmates with severe and largely untreated mental illness languished in cells covered in filth. Some wailed and screamed interminably, or carried on deranged conversations with imaginary voices. Others ate their own feces, threw them at ADX staff, or used them to paint their cell walls. Still others attempted to harm themselves by amputating their own body parts, swallowing razor blades, or cutting themselves with shards of glass.”
“I feel like I’m trapped within a disease,” former ADX inmate Mark Jordan once wrote this reporter.
“Anyone who spends more than three years in a place like this is ruined for life,” added former ADX inmate Jack Powers, who has mutilated himself dozens of times in solitary confinement.
ADX staffers are, in theory, supposed to be trained on how to respond to mental health emergencies. But, in practice, they regularly ignore suicidal inmates and even punish them for insubordination. In the decade or so before Knott’s death, well over a dozen lawsuits had been filed alleging mistreatment of mentally ill inmates at ADX. Some were pending at the time he hanged himself.
Knott spent a more than a decade at ADX, from 2002 to the time of his suicide in 2013. His serious mental illness was obvious even to other inmates. Knott opted not to go outside. He regularly refused to wear clothing. And his cell was always filthy.
Two weeks before killing himself, Knott was informed he likely would be transferred to a treatment program in Atlanta. After so long in extreme solitary confinement, the prospect of having to interact with other prisoners caused what the lawsuit calls “extreme psychological distress.”
“From then on, Mr. Knott’s mental state began to rapidly deteriorate,” the lawsuit reads.
For about two weeks, Knott refused medication. He began talking incoherently and screaming in his cell. For the last three or four days of his life, he refused his food trays. And the day before his suicide, he repeatedly threatened to swallow a razor blade.
One inmate said officers acted as though Knott’s behavior was, as the complaint puts it, an “entertaining spectacle rather than an emergency situation.”
“According to inmates in Mr. Knott’s unit, it was painfully obvious that Mr. Knott was at grave risk of harming himself and that he needed to be immediately removed from his cell for emergency mental health care. But despite the evident signs of mental deterioration and suicidal impulses, the guards on duty did not place Mr. Knott on suicide watch or remove him from his cell for observation or mental health treatment,” the complaint reads. “Instead, the officers disregarded Mr. Knott’s obvious plea for help and left him to languish alone in his cell.”
Knott wrote one word, in toothpaste, on his wall before hanging himself: “HEAVEN.”
After finding that he had hung himself from the bars of his cell by his bedsheet, officers insisted on placing him in full physical restraints on a stretcher. Then Fremont Coroner Carlette Brocious asked that his corpse be unshackled during her examination of his body, but officers refused.
Brocious called out the BOP for what she liked to sadism.
“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 told The Independent.
BOP didn’t bother notifying anyone of Knott’s suicide for 11 days. Finally, because of The Independent’s story, Knott’s long estranged relatives became aware of his death and tried arranging for his burial on native Winnebago tribal lands.
His body arrived 18 days too late for him to be buried in a four-day, four-night ceremony that’s traditional for his birth mother’s Ho-Chuck tribe. But, after his 40-year odyssey separated from his native family, they were relieved that he was finally home.
The lawsuit, filed by Knott’s adopted aunt, Elaine Johnson-Hess in Arizona, alleged breach of duty and negligence on the part of the BOP. It asked for compensatory damages both for Knott’s burial and for his pain, suffering and death.
Court records say last month’s $175,000 settlement “is not, is in no way intended to be, and should not be construed as, an admission of liability or fault on the part of the United States, its agents, servants, or employees.”
But, of course, that’s bunk.
Somewhere along the line, the BOP seems to have forgotten that Knott, despite his criminal history, was a human being. It systematically let him kill himself, as it has let others die similarly quiet deaths in ADX – a prison intended to keep our country safe.
Photo credit: di northey, Creative Commons, Flickr.