American gulag

I can’t read beyond the first few paragraphs, it’s too upsetting to read what we do to people here in the “civilized” United States of America.

When Jack Powers arrived at maximum-security federal prison in Atlanta in 1990 after a bank robbery conviction, he had never displayed symptoms of or been treated for mental illness. Still in custody a few years later, he witnessed three inmates, believed to be members of the Aryan Brotherhood gang, kill another inmate. Powers tried to help the victim get medical attention, and was quickly transferred to a segregated unit for his safety, but it didn’t stop the gang’s members from quickly threatening him.


Not then. And certainly not after Powers testified (not once but twice) for the federal government against the assailants. The threats against him continued and Powers was soon transferred to a federal prison in Pennsylvania, where he was threatened even after he was put into protective custody. By this time, Powers had developed insomnia and anxiety attacks and was diagnosed by a prison psychologist as suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Instead of giving Powers medicine, or proper mental health therapy, officials transferred him yet again, this time to another federal prison in New Jersey. There, Powers was informed by officials that he would be removed from a witness protection program and transferred back into the prison’s general population. Fearing for his life, Powers escaped. When he was recaptured two days later he was sent to ADX-Florence, part of a sprawling prison complex near Florence, Colorado often referred to as “ADX” or Supermax,” America’s most famous and secure federal prison.

From there, things got worse. The Supermax complex, made up of different secure prison units and facilities, is laden with members of the Brotherhood and Powers was no safer than he had been anywhere else. Over and over again he was threatened at the Colorado prison. Over and over again he injured or mutilated himself in response. Over and over again he was transferred to federal government’s special mental health prison facility in Missouri, diagnosed with PTSD, and given medication. Over and over again that medication was taken away when he came back to Supermax.

As he sits today in Supermax, Powers had amputated his fingers, a testicle, his scrotum and his earlobes, has cut his Achilles tendon, and had tried several times to kill himself. Those tattoos you see? Powers had none until 2009, when he started mutilating with a razor and carbon paper. He did much of this — including biting off his pinkie and cutting skin off his face — in the Control Unit at ADX while prison officials consistently refused to treat his diagnosed mental illness. Rules are rules, prison officials told him, and no prisoners in that unit were to be given psychotropic medicine no matter how badly they needed it.

5 Responses to American gulag

  1. lless February 18, 2013 at 11:59 am #

    The reason that the Eighth Amendment proscribes “cruel AND unusual” punishments is that were the phrase disjunctive (OR) our entire penal system would have to be shuttered.

  2. jawbone February 18, 2013 at 2:11 pm #

    Holy hell but we’re a sick fuck of a nation.

    I recently heard a discussion on WNYC about a mentally ill man sentenced to be executed in Texas. He did kill people, which the voices in his had had told him to do. He was certifiably suffering from mental illness, but the prosecutor found a psych who said he was just fine to try and execute.

    While in jail, he self mutilated, was not treated for his illness, etc. He blinded himself in one eye, and, a year or so later, removed his remaining eye and ate it.

    But, while the mentally ill are not supposed to executed, he will be, as it stands.


    Our treatment or lack thereof for the mentally ill may be our source for domestic blowback. We don’t treat returning soldiers suffering from PTSD and brain injuries well, we don’t treat our mentally ill well — eventually some of them will use out freely available weaponry to kill and maim more of us.

  3. Izquierdo February 18, 2013 at 3:31 pm #

    America is rapidly descending into a state of social and economic barbarism from which the people who control things are being comfortably shielded.
    (How’s that for opaque grammar?)

  4. Thomas Ware February 18, 2013 at 7:33 pm #

    Ahhh… pity the poor white guy.

    See Leonard Peltier, since ’78.

    No fear…

  5. mary February 18, 2013 at 10:00 pm #

    This is a heartbreaking situation. The inhumanity of it all.

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