This article originally appeared on VICE US.
She had just stepped out for a cigarette break when he walked up and asked to borrow her lighter. Smokers often congregate in the small park across from the hospital where she worked as a lab manager, but something about him gave her the creeps. He was jittery and standing just a little too close. She handed over her lighter and noticed his plastic wristband, which showed he’d been a patient in the ER that day.
She pocketed her phone and checked her surroundings. It was around 3 o’clock on a clear, windy February afternoon in Newport News, on the southeast Virginia coast. He struggled with the lighter in the breeze, so she offered up her lit L&M Red for him to use instead. He glanced at the nametag on her scrubs, then asked: Don’t we know each other from high school?
“No,” she replied. “We don’t.”
“I am pretty sure your sister ran track,” he said. “We used to go to parties together.”
He had an athlete’s chiseled build, but she was sure there was no connection from the track team. She was 28. He looked a decade older. She brushed him off, but he wouldn’t let it go.
“You have a tattoo on your ankle and a mole on your stomach,” he said. “I will give you a thousand dollars to prove it.”
He took another step closer, and she took several back. She could see another woman nearby walking toward the hospital. He pivoted as if to leave, then turned back around. She shouted for the other woman to call security, then heard him say: “Bitch, I’m going to kill you!”
He punched her in the face and grabbed her by the throat as she yelled for help. She hit the ground and took another punch to the face. His hands closed around her neck.
“I’m going to kill you, I’m going to kill you, I’m going to kill you,” she heard him say. Her vision started to blur. He tore open the front of her shirt and her bra and pulled her pants and underwear down to her knees.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to die in this field today,’” she testified. “And that ticked me off, so I kind of grabbed onto his arms and flipped over.”
He stood up and walked toward a bus stop about 50 yards away, where two men had stood and watched the incident unfold. She fumbled to find her glasses on the ground and called 911. The police arrived minutes later to make the arrest.
Three days earlier he’d been released from prison, the cops said.
He’d spent the past 11 years in solitary confinement alongside some of the world’s most notorious terrorists, spies, kingpins, and murderers.
When Mary — who asked that her last name be withheld — read the local news, she learned her attacker’s name: Jabbar Currence. When she googled it, she got thousands of hits. He’d been involved in a lawsuit against the Bureau of Prisons over conditions at the United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colorado.
Also known as The Alcatraz of the Rockies or simply ADX, it is the most secure prison in the United States. Of the federal prison system’s approximately 150,000 inmates, the 375 or so at ADX are often described as “the worst of the worst.” Every prisoner is housed in solitary confinement, most for 22 or 23 hours a day.
The full ADX guest list is kept secret for security reasons, but the known occupants include World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef, Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 9/11 plotter Zacarias Moussaoui, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, and leaders of the Aryan Brotherhood, the Mexican Mafia, the Gangster Disciples, and other powerful prison gangs. Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán checked in last month.
But while some ADX prisoners are high-profile criminals serving life sentences, others are relative unknowns who are eventually released after serving their time.
Despite multiple warnings and violent incidents, the Bureau of Prisons has sent severely mentally ill prisoners — including Currence — home from ADX with virtually no preparation or safety net.
At least three others have been either been accused or convicted of serious felonies after being released from ADX:
- Ernest Shaifer: A mentally ill man who spent 10 years in ADX, Shaifer had been out for less than a year when he nearly beat two women to death with a shovel handle in 2015. He’s now serving a 30-year sentence in Florida’s state prison system.
- Antoine Bruce: After approximately seven years in ADX, Bruce was released to his hometown of Washington, D.C., last October. He was free for less than six months before being arrested for allegedly attacking a man with a knife outside a homeless shelter. He claims self-defense and has pleaded not guilty to a felony charge.
- Mario Holmes: A 40-year-old Kansas City man with schizophrenia, Holmes did approximately eight years in ADX after going to prison for bank robbery. He was arrested for another bank robbery in 2014, found incompetant to stand trial, and committed to a mental hospital. In July 2018, after his release from the hospital, he robbed the same bank again. His mother says the robberies were prompted by paranoid delusions exacerbated by her son’s time in solitary. Holmes was again deemed unfit to stand trial and now resides in a high-security federal mental institution.
- Dale Mitchell Lemoine: A convicted bank robber and former ADX prisoner, Lemoine was shot by an off-duty Dallas police officer in 2008 when confronted for stealing from a Walmart. Lemoine, who had a history of mental illness, was wielding a boxcutter when the cop opened fire. Lemoine’s ex-wife said he was placed on a bus from ADX with orders to take his meds and check in with a probation officer in Texas. She heard from his brother that he was killed before the first meeting.
I spoke with 11 former ADX inmates and located seven others through family members, attorneys, and public records. Each story was different, but virtually all the men described receiving little or no preparation for returning to society after years of brutal isolation. Some engaged in self-harm at ADX just to be hospitalized so they could have contact with doctors, nurses, and non-prison staff.
“The way I look at it, after the ADX, what's left? It's death row. Next is death row or the graveyard.”
The Bureau of Prisons doesn’t use the term solitary confinement, but everyone at ADX is housed alone, typically in a 7-by-12 concrete cell. Bureau policy officially prohibits mentally ill prisoners from being housed at ADX — except those considered to be an “extraordinary security risk.”
ADX inmates are offered classes and therapy, but those who refuse can end up spending little or no time outside of solitary before hitting the streets. Despite being considered too dangerous for even a high-security penitentiary, and then further damaged by years of isolation, Currence was allegedly unshackled by armed guards in a public parking lot.
“They put him a van, chained him up, and drove him to the halfway house and turned him loose,” said Currence’s attorney while he was at ADX, Ed Aro. “That day he was walking the streets of Norfolk, Virginia. He’d been in a cell by himself for 16 years, then all of a sudden he’s in a dorm-style halfway house.”
ADX Warden Andre Matevousian, who has overseen the prison since early 2018, declined an interview request. In a statement to VICE News, a Bureau of Prisons spokesperson said the agency “seeks to avoid releasing inmates directly from restrictive housing back to the community if this can be done without endangering the safety of the inmate, staff, other inmates, or the public.”
The spokesperson added, “If remaining in restrictive housing becomes necessary prior to release, the Bureau provides targeted re-entry programming to prepare the inmate for his return to the community.”
A request for detailed records about inmate releases from ADX is pending with the BOP.
Federal authorities can seek “involuntary hospitalization” of certain mentally ill prisoners to delay their release. It’s unclear how often, if ever, that tactic has been used, but laws that allow people to be held beyond their sentence are intended only for rare and extreme circumstances. As long as ADX exists, those not serving life need a pathway out.
On a national level, the question of how to humanely treat and rehabilitate violent and mentally ill inmates remains vexing, even as criminal justice reform becomes a bipartisan cause. President Trump recently signed “The First Step Act,” a bill intended to “help reduce the rate of recidivism and offer prisoners the support they need for life after incarceration.” But it’s aimed at people who have committed nonviolent crimes, so it does nothing for the types of offenders that end up at ADX.
The inmates at ADX spend prolonged periods in solitary, even though research suggests long-term isolation can make them more aggressive, more unstable, and more likely to re-offend. Solitary is often justified as the only way to contain the most dangerous prisoners, but less than 3% of federal inmates are lifers. Some of those considered too volatile to be around other inmates will eventually be set free.
“Let’s be honest, it has nothing to do with rehabilitation.”
The ADX cases represent a dangerous paradox in the American justice system’s reliance on solitary. As Mary put it after she learned more about Currence: “If this individual is unsafe in the prison system, where there are safeguards and there are people right there all the time to be able to bring the situation back under control, how is that somebody who should be released back into society?”
Without detailed records or clarification from prison officials, it’s unclear exactly how many prisoners have been let out of ADX over the years and how many of those have gone on to commit more crimes. A 2014 “review and assessment,” which used data provided by the BOP, found that roughly 60% of ADX inmates — about 250 total — were scheduled to go home eventually. Independent inspectors found last year that around 50 inmates at ADX were scheduled to be released from 2017 to 2020.
And it’s not just ADX. Public data is limited, but there is evidence that federal, state, and local authorities release prisoners directly to the streets after long-term stays in isolation.