ACLU Investigation Reveals Grossly Inadequate Conditions On Federal Death Row

Affiliate: ACLU of Indiana
October 15, 2008 12:00 am

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Letter To Bureau Of Prisons Director Demands Substantial Improvements

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TERRE HAUTE, IN – Existing conditions on federal death row are grossly inadequate, fail to meet constitutional standards and jeopardize the health and safety of the men who live there, according to an American Civil Liberties Union investigation.

A letter sent today by the ACLU to Harley Lappin, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, reveals that prisoners living in the Special Confinement Unit (SCU) of the United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute – home to the more than 50 men living on federal death row – are denied access to basic medical care, basic mental health care services, timely and adequate dental care and are subjected to incessant noise that causes sleep deprivation and psychological and physiological stress.

"Our findings should be a clear wake up call for federal prison officials and should prompt them to do whatever is necessary to ensure that they are fulfilling their constitutional obligations to provide adequate levels of care," said Gabriel B. Eber, attorney with the ACLU's National Prison Project, who wrote the letter to Lappin after spending the past year investigating the SCU by interviewing prisoners and reviewing hundreds of pages of prison records. "The Constitution prohibits deliberate indifference to the serious medical needs of prisoners, including those sentenced to die."

According to the ACLU's letter, prison officials do not promptly respond to medical emergencies, access to acute health care is woefully deficient, prisoners who need medicine face substantial obstacles getting prescriptions filled and signs of potentially serious medical conditions are consistently ignored.

Earlier this year, for example, a prisoner suffering from a cardiac emergency spent more than 45 minutes pressing the emergency call button in his cell before receiving any kind of a response. It took three additional hours for a physician to arrive and only then was the prisoner transported to the emergency room where he received the medical care he needed. Upon return from the hospital, however, it was five days before the prisoner received his first dose of the medication prescribed by the hospital cardiologist.

"The failure of prison officials to adequately respond to the medical emergencies of prisoners, and to ensure proper access to critical medications, is inexplicable and could well result in prisoner deaths," said Eber.

Prisoners are also not adequately evaluated for mental illnesses, according to the ACLU's letter, and those who are diagnosed with mental illnesses are not sufficiently treated. In fact, prisoners housed in the SCU say their regimens of psychotropic medications were discontinued by prison officials upon their arrival in the SCU. One prisoner went so far as to volunteer for execution last year, citing the denial by prison officials of any mental health treatment as a significant factor in his doing so.

Dental care for prisoners in the SCU is grossly and dangerously deficient as well. Prisoners are regularly forced to wait for months on end in considerable pain while their requests for care are routinely ignored. Care is so poor that some prisoners have chosen to have all of their teeth extracted rather than suffer any further.

Prisoners are also forced to endure a constant bombardment of incessant noise at all hours of the day and night. According to the ACLU's letter, prisoners are subjected to constant banging and screaming from other parts of the institution. They are also subjected to the sounding of several deafening fire alarms each week that last as long as 90 minutes, include flashing strobe lights, and cause significant psychological distress.

"The fact that prisoners are asking to be executed as a means of escaping the horrendous conditions they are forced to contend with on a daily basis is a testament to just how urgently changes are needed," said Eber. "That kind of reality is unworthy of a society that cherishes justice and fairness."

A copy of the ACLU's letter to Lappin can be found online at:

Additional information about the ACLU's National Prison Project can be found online at:

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