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His Case Was Vacated. But His Medical Treatment In Prison Nearly Killed Him.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Seifullah Chapman’s Eighth Amendment Rights were violated by federal prison staff who were indifferent to his medical needs.

The ADX (administrative maximum) Supermax Prison in Florence, Colorado.Photo by Lizzie Himmel/Sygma via Getty Images.

The United States 10th Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that three medical professionals at ADX Florence violated the constitutional rights of Seifullah Chapman, who was incarcerated at the super maximum security federal prison in Colorado.

Chapman, who has severe Type 1 diabetes and requires specialized medical care, was held at ADX Florence during the 2010s. In 2015, Chapman sued the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) over his treatment at ADX, alleging that his Eighth Amendment rights were violated and that the three medical professionals acted with deliberate indifference to his medical needs.  . 

ADX Florence—considered America’s most secure federal prison, housing high-profile prisoners such as Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán—has a long, troubled history pertaining to the physical and mental well-being of its detainees. In 2012, five people incarcerated at ADX filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging that mental health care treatment at ADX is “woefully and constitutionally inadequate.” Plaintiff Michael Bacote, who has major depressive disorder, alleged that his repeated requests for mental health assistance were refused as were multiple requests to be transferred from the facility. ADX Florence also has a history of deaths by suicide and prisoners who engage in self-mutilation. One incarcerated person bit off his own finger and attempted suicide multiple times.  

In 2003, Chapman, a U.S. Marine veteran, was one of 11 individuals accused of preparing for violent jihadist warfare—through paintball games. Prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia claimed that the games were “viewed as not just an opportunity for outdoor exercise, fellowship, and an opportunity to improve self-defense skills, but also as preparation for real combat.” Prosecutors also alleged that in 2001, Chapman joined others on a journey to Pakistan to train with the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). 

At a 2004 trial, Chapman was convicted of conspiring to commit an offense against the United States in violation of the Neutrality Act, conspiring to contribute material support to LeT,  and multiple firearms-related offenses. U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema sentenced him to 85 years in prison. But at a 2005 resentencing, Judge Brinkema reduced the time to 65 years after a Supreme Court ruling gave judges more discretion regarding federal sentencing guidelines. In 2018, Brinkema vacated Chapman’s sentence and ordered his immediate release, after the Supreme Court ruled that the legal definition of violent crime used to sentence him was “unconstitutionally vague.” Brinkema ruled that Chapman’s violation of the Neutrality Act and support of a terrorist group were classified as violent crimes at the time of his original sentencing, although he had never committed an actual physical act of violence.

After Chapman was convicted in 2004, he was sent to USP Big Sandy in Kentucky and then to the Communication Management Unit at USP Terre Haute, a high-security prison in Indiana that houses federal death row. Nicole Godfrey, one of Chapman’s attorneys, told The Appeal that while her client was at Terre Haute, correctional officers wrote him up for praying in a group of three, and gave a second violation for sending an unauthorized email to his wife and lawyer that said he would not be able to communicate with them for some time. Chapman was then transferred to a Special Management Unit (SMU) at USP Lewisburg in Pennsylvania. In the SMU, people spend 23 hours per day in their cells with a cellmate in a space so small that they cannot walk around it at the same time.  USP Lewisburg has been sued repeatedly for its treatment of incarcerated people, and Chapman said medical staff there stopped giving him insulin. 

A judge from the Eastern District of Virginia ordered Chapman’s transfer to a medical center at Springfield, Missouri, where he began receiving insulin again. After about a year at the facility, Chapman was transferred to ADX Florence where he said he again received substandard medical care. Like USP Lewisburg, ADX Florence has also faced conditions lawsuits. A 2013 Slate article described USP Lewisburg and ADX Florence as among the worst facilities in the federal system: “USP Lewisburg might be the worst place in the federal prison system, so bad that some inmates there actually dream of being transferred to the famously isolating Supermax facility in Florence, Colo.”

According to the 10th Circuit ruling, though medical professionals serving Chapman knew about the severity of his condition, they acted with negligence toward it. One physician’s assistant waited two hours to bring Chapman the sliding scale insulin needed to end an episode of hyperglycemia, which Chapman said is so painful that his “blood feels like it’s on fire.” When Chapman complained, the assistant responded, “It’s not my problem, it’s not my fault.” 

On another occasion, Chapman twice complained to guards that he was experiencing hyperglycemia. After about two hours and 45 minutes, a different physician’s assistant arrived and told Chapman that he was not “worried about” his blood sugar “being high” because he had known another person who had extremely high blood sugar and survived. And according to the 10th Circuit ruling, though Chapman’s weekly bouts of hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia were “clearly reflected in his medical records,” one doctor’s care was so poor that an expert described it as “dramatically short of medically acceptable standards …even for prisoners.” 

“I think the one thing that we were really thrilled about in the decision was the recognition from the circuit,” Godfrey told The Appeal.  She then read from the court ruling: “The Eighth Amendment is not a ‘maybe’ or a ‘sometimes’ proposition. If conditions violate the Eighth Amendment, all prisoners have the right to be free of such conditions. The right does not vary depending on the threat that the individual prisoner presents to institutional security.”

The 10th Circuit decision did not award Chapman monetary damages, though the defendants can still ask the circuit court for a rehearing, or appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.

A hearing in the case is scheduled in April and the case will be set for trial in a U.S. District Court after.  Chapman’s attorneys are hopeful about this case and that it could be useful to people incarcerated in ADX Florence. “We’ve shared the decision with other lawyers in the Denver civil rights community, and they said that they think this might be able to help their cases,” Susannah Rogers, another Chapman attorney, told The Appeal. “We hope that’s the case, but obviously we can’t know for sure.”