Mimesis Law
21 October 2017

The Federal Prison Nightmare That Is USP Lewisburg

December 1, 2016 (Fault Lines) — The bad dreams implication refers not to the short-lived financial scare endured by the corporations that run BOP facilities, or to the lurid visions endured by inmates while they snooze on a federal cot. Rather, it is about the day-to-day, systematic use of torture as a disciplinary method by employees of a government agency that is overseen by a subdivision of the U.S. Department of Justice:

The investigation by NPR and The Marshall Project found violence between prisoners is six times more likely at Lewisburg, compared with all federal prisons. That violence is more likely because of the practice of putting dangerous men together in one solitary confinement cell — a practice called double celling — for 23 to 24 hours a day, plus a lack of mental health care and the frequent use of restraints for prisoners who refuse to live with a specific cellmate. One man in our investigation, Sebastian Richardson, was put in restraints for 28 days after he refused to cell with a man who had a reputation in the prison for attacking his cellmates.

Documents obtained by NPR and The Marshall Project showed that inmate-on-inmate attacks are a near daily occurrence and that at least four men have been attacked and killed by their cellmates since 2009. The prison in Lewisburg houses a Special Management Unit for about 1,000 prisoners who are considered disruptive or dangerous and were removed from other federal prisons.

Since solitary confinement is torture, does the halving of a cell by adding a dangerous inmate to that already miniscule space make it not so? Or does it make it even more torturous? Is that the prison’s twisted version of double secret probation? What is certain is that some inmates refused to have a solitary roommate (oxymoron?) because he didn’t want to get his ass kicked or even killed by a fellow inmate with a known history of lunacy or violence, and then the screws at USP Lewisburg put the former in restraints as punishment.

So despite popular folklore, it’s not only in countries run by tyrannical crime families where prisoners endure abuse from fellow inmates with the acquiescence of guards. In fact, it’s worse at USP*, since this was not acquiescence by wink-and-nod, but an affirmative practice of jamming these people into these tiny cells. This is happening right here, not too far from the nearest strip (no pun) mall.

As for whether restraints constitute torture, it may depend on the length of punishment for that minor transgression, but when if it occurs for 28 damn days like it did for Richardson, it’s not even close. According to a lawsuit filed by Richardson, the BOP confirmed his account. For an entity that’s got mad obfuscating and double-speak skillz, that speaks volumes.

The horrors have been occurring at USP Lewisburg and reported about for years, all whilst the facility remained under the control oversight of the DOJ. And what is the practice of “restraints” at USP Lewisburg, you ask?  According to NPR, it is known as “four-pointing,” and consists of having each limb cuffed to a corner of a concrete slab or bed frame. It’s safe to say that the poor, wretched, luckless soul who has to endure this will urinate and defecate on himself during that time.

Inmates like Richardson were left with a Sophie’s Choice from hell: remain in restraints with swollen limbs and soaked in his own feces; or return to a cell the size of a parking lot that he will share with someone who may beat him to a bloody pulp. I guess there’s always more leg room at the BOP’s ambulatory care units should they go with option number two.

At the very least, those at USP could never dream of a “safe space,” literal or otherwise, because the warden really thought this cozying up would result in a more peaceful coexistence amongst inmates:

The cells were originally built for just one person, but officials doubled up the SMU inmates to teach them to “successfully coexist,” according to the prisoner handbook. It also helped alleviate overcrowding — data from the Bureau of Prisons show high-security federal prisons are overstuffed by more than 50 percent.

As a result, prisoners in the SMU share excessively tight cells; between the bunks, sink, toilet, desk and the roommate, there is barely room to stand. “When I use the toilet, his feet are on my knees,” said Moore, the former Lewisburg inmate. Inmates get a brief reprieve from the closetlike conditions every week for medical care, three showers and five hours in a “recreation cage.”

“I’ve gone to as many as three, four cell fights in a day, a lot more than you would at any other institution,” said a current SMU corrections officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job.

Well, so much for that. At least their will was good. But the systematic abuse of inmates as a form of punishment — and the reluctance of correctional employees of going on record because of fear — is not exclusive to the Feds. This week, the Florida Department of Corrections paid out $800K to settle a whistleblower lawsuit filed by investigators from its inspector general’s office.

The inspectors sued in response to the retaliation they received when they reported that an inmate at Franklin Correctional Institution, Randall Jordan-Aparo, had been gassed to death with noxious gas by prison guards in 2010. Feel free to commit that last phrase to memory.

*United States Penitentiary.

8 Comments on this post.

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  • RICHARD KOPF
    1 December 2016 at 10:41 am - Reply

    Mario,

    Thanks for bringing attention to this issue. I fear that it is the tip of a huge iceberg.

    I have more than a little experience with “double-bunking.” I once wrote:

    “Imagine you committed a crime and are entering the Nebraska State Penitentiary for the first time as a convicted felon. You are locked in a cell no bigger than a closet for 10 to 14 hours each and every day.

    In the cell you find a monster in the form of a man. The lights go down. It’s hard to see in. If you scream, you probably will not be heard. Imagine further that this creature has a well-documented history of taking his recreation by sodomizing any available prey. If the prey resists, the monster may use a razor to slice the victim from the “shoulder down to the ass.”

    El Tabech v. Gunter, 922 F. Supp. 244 (D. Neb. 1996) (certifying to the 8th Circuit that in a class action case that the heads of the Nebraska Department of Corrections actually knew of and disregarded a substantial risk to the safety of the plaintiffs by randomly putting inmates in double cells at the Nebraska State Pentitionary without checking available data related to the propensity of violence of each inmate and imposing injunction), available at:

    https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=14822645249299919602&q=double+cell+and+Kopf&hl=en&as_sdt=4,150

    The decision above finally ending years of litigation was affirmed on appeal. That pleased me, especially because it was written by Judge Richard Arnold. You can find the Court of Appeals opinion here:

    https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=275413932435927578&hl=en&as_sdt=5,150&sciodt=4,150

    The NSP is a maximum security prison, then housing the State’s most violent offenders. At that time, it consisted of six housing units. The cells were approximately 74 square feet in size, and were intended to house one inmate. Because of the large prison population, that limitation had never been possible. The population at NSP hovered at about 150% of capacity. To accommodate the large number of prisoners, the NSP had to double cell the inmates.

    The violence in the double cells was poignantly illustrated by the testimony of two inmates, one a perpetrator (inmate Hart) and the other a victim (inmate Jensen).

    (a) Inmate Hart, “an aggressive, loathsome individual,” testified about his predatory behavior with “complete indifference.” The defendants “provided no factual basis to conclude that Hart has exaggerated or fabricated his exploits.” Hart has been continually double-celled despite the following:

    (i) While in prison in Oregon for attempted murder, Hart was celled with another man. Hart assaulted his cellmate and “slit his throat,” “slic[ing] [him] from the right shoulder … and up from his ass.” After using a hammer to beat the man’s head, Hart walked away when he thought the man was dead. Hart was then transferred to Nebraska.

    (ii) When Hart arrived at D & E, he reported the incident in Oregon. After he assaulted an inmate who was celled with him at D & E, Hart was given a single cell. Upon being transferred to the penitentiary, however, Hart was immediately double-celled. He had a “confrontation” with his cellmate, and the cellmate moved out. Hart requested a single cell, but his requests were denied.

    (iii) Hart subsequently engaged in various types of assaultive behavior against his cellmates. These incidents ranged from sexual assaults (only “four out of seventeen [cellmates was I] unable to encourage or coerce into a homosexual act”) to other types of assaults (placing Clorox in his cellmate’s eye solution and toilet bowl cleaner in an inhaler) to extortion (of an older inmate who had a heart problem). Five of Hart’s cellmates checked into protective custody.

    (b) Inmate Jensen was transferred from a minimum security facility to a double cell in one of the housing units. Jensen was a relatively small (5 feet 10 inches, 145 pounds), 21-year-old man incarcerated for theft. This is what happened to him three days after he was first placed in a double cell:

    (i) Jensen was housed with inmate Svitak, a tall, 250-pound, muscle-bound man about 45 years of age who was serving a life sentence. Svitak had previously assaulted a staff member, and he made it clear to the staff that he did not want a cellmate.
    (ii) On September 27, 1987, Jensen and Svitak met. Their meeting took place during the lockdown preceding the evening meal. Svitak told Jensen he did not want a cellmate and Jensen should move out. Jensen told Svitak he had already asked to be placed in a cell with his brother, who was also at the penitentiary. The next day Svitak reminded Jensen “in a serious manner” that he needed to move out. Jensen then sent a written request to Donn Beaver asking to be moved.
    (iii) On September 30, Jensen was awakened by Svitak’s punching him in the face. The cell was locked, as it always was in the morning. Jensen screamed for help. The incident continued for 10 to 15 minutes. When the door was unlocked, Jensen left the cell and Svitak went to breakfast. Jensen was moved to a another cell. Although Jensen reported the assault, no action was taken against Svitak because there was no corroborating evidence.

    My decision so annoyed the then Governor of Nebraska (who subsequently became a US Senator) that he wrote a letter to me (ex parte) complaining and defending the higher ups in the Department of corrections. I did not respond but merely advised counsel of the ex parte contact.

    So, why the detail provided above? The problem you describe is real and it exists all over this country–it is a national disgrace. As I saw in 1996, there remains little political will to address the issue.

    I have great sympathy for the good men and women at Lewisburg who try to deal with these “special managment” inmates each every day–it is not their fault. That said, at some point if BOP does not get its act together a judge like me is going to make the lives of some Washington bureaucrats very miserable and that is as it should be.

    Mario, you have done a great service by writing about this problem. Kudos to you.

    All the best.

    RGK

    • shg
      1 December 2016 at 10:50 am - Reply

      That might have made a better post than comment. Just sayin’.

      • Richard Kopf
        1 December 2016 at 11:09 am - Reply

        Dear Mean Ass Editor,

        Message received loud and clear. May the Gods have mercy on my soul (such as it is). All the best.

        RGK

    • Mario Machado
      2 December 2016 at 11:49 am - Reply

      Judge Kopf,

      Thank you. You paint quite the picture in that Opinion. These inmates/victims of “double-bunking” are truly helpless, at least during the moments when a Hulk is ushered into their tiny cell. The governor being annoyed was a great collateral effect. I would think one of the Article III perks is you get to piss off the guvnas from time to time.

      And please stop calling Almirante Greenfield “mean ass.” Inside that veteran CDL/managing editor carapace, there are tender feelings that can be hurt, I’m sure. Just looking out.

      The best to you & yours Judge.

      Mario

  • stevie g
    3 December 2016 at 2:12 pm - Reply

    Here’s a second on the motion for a separate article Judge. Fascinating information, to be sure.

  • Nonya Binis
    4 December 2016 at 1:12 pm - Reply

    Wow. Just wow. I’m no judge or jury, but according to any spiritual laws, those to inflict unnecessary violence against anyone will surely pay a consequence for their soul.

  • Anon
    4 December 2016 at 4:27 pm - Reply

    Not to worry. President Trump will fix this mess. Privatization of the federal prison system is the key. New management! Big League. Believe me, you’re going to love it. It’s a simple fix. You’ll be amazed.

    Next problem…

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    2 January 2017 at 6:35 am - Reply

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