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Death by Indifference

Remembering Robert Knott, a case the Justice Department would rather you forget

The story of the last days of Robert Gerald Knott’s life is not for the weak-kneed. The severely mentally ill federal prisoner committed suicide in his cell at the “Supermax” prison in Florence, Colorado, on September 7, 2013. He was, literally, stark raving mad when he died; his condition so bad other inmates were begging corrections officers to help him.

“I would see and hear officers peeking in his cell and whispering to each other like he was some sort of spectacle, they never notified the Lt. or pyscholog [sic] about his bizarre behavior,” a fellow inmate wrote in a letter made public shortly after Knott’s death. “They would infrequently open his outer door to peek inside without asking him was he ok or why he was doing what he was doing.”

After Knott’s death, the representative of his estate sought damages from the Bureau of Prisons for the lack of medical care and treatment given to Knott in the weeks— the years really— leading to his death. The feds promptly denied the administrative request in a pro forma letter that told the personal representative that she was entitled to no relief because she had suffered no “personal injury” as a result of the conduct of BOP officials. The December 14, 2015 letter was the bureaucratic form of a brush-off.

So Knott’s representative filed a federal lawsuit in Colorado seeking damages under the Federal Tort Claims Act. The complaint was filed on January 15th of this year. Just two weeks later, without even filing a formal answer to the complaint, without even arguing in court that the claims had no legal or factual basis, the feds settled with Knott’s representative for $175,000. The settlement, made public last Friday, ended the nascent litigation.

You don’t need to be a prison expert to speculate reasonably about why the U.S. government would settle a lawsuit two weeks after it was filed. The facts set forth in the complaint filed by Knott’s estate tell a compelling story not just about Knott’s deepening misery— he spent nearly 11 years in solitary confinement before he died— but also about the deliberate indifference that for years has been the Bureau of Prisons’ default policy toward mentally ill prisoners.

Knott came to Supermax after a terrible life. When he was a kid his mother shot and killed his father. He was then adopted, but his adoptive parents were killed in a plane crash when he was 15 years old. As early as 1990 the federal courts were acknowledging that he had a “serious mental disease.” Seven times, from 1989 until his death, Knott’s condition deteriorated to such a point that he was transferred from federal prisons to the special federal prison in Springfield, Missouri, that treats severely mentally ill inmates.

In 1992, he was transferred to Springfield after he was found hanging from the bars of his cell to avoid “white bugs.” In 1994 he was back after a suicidal gesture. In 1996 he cut himself. In 1999 he was was sent to Missouri after he told guards the voices in his head were telling him to kill himself. In 2002, after another stint on suicide watch, his mental health was deemed to have deteriorated even further. He was observed “babbling incoherently at his door, changing voices and tones randomly” and living in filth, drinking “the dirty, soapy water out of the bottom of the shower.”

His condition got so bad in 2002, in fact, that he was briefly treated at a psychiatric hospital under a civil commitment order from a federal judge. But when the order expired the feds put Knott right back into Supermax— this time into solitary confinement. There he remained until 2013, the year in which he hanged himself with a bedsheet in his filthy, feces-lined cell, with the word “heaven” written on the shower wall in toothpaste, as his alarmed fellow inmates sought help for him. And when his body left the prison it was still shackled, post-mortem, as is the custom at the Florence facility.

Here is the link to the Knott complaint. Reading it you can see why the case settled so quickly. The feds surely understood after reading the allegations that no federal trial judge in Colorado was likely to dismiss the case short of trial and that jurors likely would have been aghast if they were to learn what those guards did and did not do on that cellblock in the days leading to Knott’s death. Someone at the DOJ, probably in Washington, quickly decided that $175,000 paid up front was far less than a jury was likely to award, even to the family of a convicted kidnapper serving a life sentence.

Before Knott and his story recede into the mist of prison history, however, it’s worth pausing for a moment to go through a few details. One of the many tragedies at play here is that two weeks before Knott killed himself he was told that he was a candidate for a special federal prison program designed specifically for inmates with severe mental illness. Reacting to a federal lawsuit filed against Supermax officials in 2012, a lawsuit that included story after story of the mistreatment of mentally ill prisoners at Supermax in Colorado, the Bureau of Prisons set up a program in Atlanta to try to make inmates like Knott more healthy.

But Knott’s involvement in the Atlanta program— if, indeed, he would have been accepted there— was conditioned on a level of interaction with other prisoners that Knott could not comprehend after a decade spent in solitary confinement. Once he was told he was eligible for this new program, an earnest effort by prison officials to help ill inmates like him, his condition immediately deteriorated. He began to refuse his psychotropic medicine. He began lashing out. Yelling. Refusing to eat. Threatening to swallow a razor blade.

Despite all this, and despite the BOP’s broader, litigation-fueled initiative to try to help men like Knott, prison guards at Supermax failed or refused to put Knott on a suicide watch or to remove him from his fetid cell to provide him with medical treatment. No corrections officer even bothered to take down a sheet Knott had put up in his cell to shield his increasingly bizarre behavior from guards. An hour before his suicide guards noticed the shield and a cell in utter disarray and a floridly psychotic man— and did nothing.

So now Knott is dead. The lawsuit that would have brought his case and his cause the national attention it deserves has ended with a quiet wire transfer to a bank. The feds paid out a pittance compared with what a jury might have awarded but far more than it would have cost the Bureau of Prisons to provide Knott with adequate mental health care. And there continue to exist in the nation’s federal prisons many inmates like him, either mentally ill when they came to prison or made mentally ill in confinement.

This sorry story is one of cognitive dissonance. On one level the feds had good intentions toward Knott. That Atlanta program might have saved him— and may save other inmates who teeter today on the edge of madness. On another level, though, Knott never stood a chance. Washington can come up with all the well-meant policies and practices in the world, but unless the prison guards sworn to implement those policies behave better than they did in this case our federal prisons will continue be places where displays of severe mental illness are considered a spectacle, or at least a nuisance.