Half a Life in Solitary: How Colorado Made a Young Man Insane

After being wrongly convicted,  Mandez went to prison and was promptly placed into solitary for institutional offenses so petty that they almost beggar belief.

Excerpts from The Atlantic – “The story of Sam Mandez is appalling on so many different levels it’s hard to know where to begin. Convicted for a murder no one has ever proven he committed, sentenced to life without parole at the age of 18 because the judge and jury had no other choice, confined for 16 years in solitary for petty offenses in prison, made severely mentally ill by prison policies and practices, left untreated in that condition year after year by state officials, Mandez personifies the self-defeating cruelty of America’s prisons today.

And yet Mandez is not alone in his predicament. All over the nation, in state prisons and federal penitentiaries, officials are failing or refusing to adequately diagnose and treat inmates who are or who are made mentally ill by their confinements. The dire conditions in which these men and women are held, the deliberate indifference with which they are treated, do not meet constitutional standards. And yet there are thousands like Mandez, symbols of one of the most shameful episodes in American legal history.

The Crime

On July 26, 1992, an elderly woman named Frida Winter was murdered in her home in Greeley, Colorado. The police recovered fingerprints from the scene and later found some of Winter’s things in a culvert near her home. But for years the investigation went nowhere in large part because it was flawed in nearly every way. Other fingerprints from Winter’s home were not recovered. Leads were not adequately pursued. Logical suspects were not properly questioned. At the time of Winter’s death, Sam Mandez was 14 years old.

Four years later, the police caught what they considered a break. Fingerprints from Winter’s home finally found a match in a police database—and the match was Sam Mandez, who had just turned 18. They brought him in for intense questioning. But Mandez had a strong alibi. He and his grandfather had painted part of Winter’s home in 1991, a year before her death. There was good reason for his prints to have been on the window that was broken on the night of Winter’s death. Mandez had been in trouble with the law before—but never for a violent crime.

There were no eyewitnesses. There was no confession. There was no evidence of any kind that Mandez had murdered Winter. But there was one other link between them. Among the items recovered from that culvert after Winter’s death was a matchbook from a business in Henderson, Nevada. The Mandez family had relatives there. The cops said this proved that Mandez had been inside Winter’s house on the night of her death: He had burglarized her home, and thus, under a dubious extension of Colorado law, he was necessarily guilty of first-degree murder…

…After being  convicted of a crime with which he never should have been charged, Mandez went to prison and was promptly placed into solitary—”administrative segregation,” is what bureaucrats call it—for institutional offenses so petty that they almost beggar belief. He made a three-way phone call he wasn’t supposed to make. He put his key in a bathroom lock after it was closed for the evening. How about: Even Kafka, even Hugo, did not memorialize such diabolical perversions of law and justice.

For that, Colorado prison officials in 1998 put Mandez away, in lockdown, where he more or less has remained for nearly 16 years. What happens when you take a young man and confine him in such conditions for such a long period? The young man becomes severely mentally ill. And his illness causes him to act out. And in acting out he gets in more trouble, which justifies his continuing placement in solitary confinement which in turn causes him to act out more.

Colorado officials, including state judges, have known about Mandez’s deteriorating condition for many years. Years ago, he was finally classified as “seriously mentally ill.” And yet to date, no one has granted him any relief. No one has ordered state correctional officers to adequately treat Mandez’s mental illness. And because he hasn’t been properly treated he’s doomed to fail the test to be released from solitary. “Progression out is contingent on program compliance,” the state contends, and “demonstrating appropriate behavior.”  Read The Full (Appalling) Story Here

 

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About WyldMoonChyld

Artist, activist.
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