The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA


September 25, 2010

Group: 2 per cell foments prison’s violence

Despite taking in the most disruptive and aggressive inmates in the federal Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Penitentiary at Lewisburg still houses two inmates to a cell, leaving them locked in with nothing to do but hate each other and plot.

It’s a recipe for murder, according to staff and inmate advocacy group Lewisburg Prison Project.

In fact, three inmates have been killed and at least one correctional officer seriously injured in the past year.

Lewisburg Prison Project board member Angela Trop said one inmate who wrote the board summed up his fear succinctly:

“A single cell would be cheaper than what they’ve spent in hospital bills and funerals.”

But prison spokesman Andrew Ciolli maintains the facility is safe and operating well.

Trop and veteran correctional officer Daniel Bensinger disagree with that assessment.

They attribute rising violence to inadequate staffing, policies and procedures to maintain the special management unit (SMU) that houses about 1,000 inmates who posed behavioral problems at other federal prisons across the country and need to be held in a more restricted environment.

Although inmates in the special unit at Lewisburg are considered the worst in the federal system, they are still held in two-man cells for 23 hours a day without television and may not refuse a cell mate.

Ciolli said all facilities in the Bureau of Prisons, except for the supermax prison in Colorado, hold two or more inmates in a cell and background checks are done before placing prisoners together at Lewisburg.

It’s not enough, say detractors who propose the safest way to confine disruptive inmates is to hold them in single cells that contain showers to restrict their movement.

“There would be a lot less violence, or a lot less potential for violence,” said Bensinger, a 25-year correctional officer who served six years as president of Local 148 of the American Federation of Government Employees.

He said some of the inmates at Lewisburg have been transferred from the Colorado supermax prison — which Ciolli denied — and vehemently resist being paired with another inmate at the local prison.

“They don’t want to go (in a two-person cell). They scream it,” Bensinger said.

If they refuse to share a cell, they’re punished for disobeying an order and some will keep quiet to avoid a fight with other inmates, he said. Their uneasiness frequently leads to violence.

“They’re not getting any sleep and they’re on edge,” he said.

“We know these people don’t interact well with others,” Trop said of her concerns with double bunking inmates in the SMU. “They have nothing to do for 23 hours but hate each other.”

Lewisburg Prison Project office manager Shawna Pies said the board wants the SMU program to be reviewed for effectiveness.

“By centralizing these prisoners in Lewisburg, the other prisons may be less violent. But conditions in Lewisburg set up an almost guaranteed cycle of violence putting inmates and the guards at risk. We’re definitely concerned about inmate and staff safety,” she said.

Local 148 president Dave Bartlett said he’s actively involved in negotiations with management and declined comment. Warden B.A. Bledsoe would not speak to The Daily Item.

Ciolli said staffing concerns have been addressed, with more than 100 new hires in the past year. Of the prison’s 539 employees, 319 are correctional officers, which he said makes the facility one of the highest staffed in the system.

The warden, he added, is satisfied the prison is operating safely.

But Bensinger and others worry that more inmates, and possibly a staff member, will be killed.

They refer to the June 20, 2008, fatal stabbing of correctional officer Jose Rivera in a California prison by two inmates and the Rivera family’s pending lawsuit alleging the Bureau of Prison Administration created dangerous conditions that led the murder.

Trop said the board has been able to piece together daily life inside the Lewisburg prison and the circumstances in the three fatalities from hundreds of inmate letters received since the SMU was established two years ago.

According to the organization, two inmates were killed earlier this year by cell mates. In both cases, one cell mate was handcuffed, while the other was not, which is standard operating procedure in the SMU when returning prisoners to their shared cells.

One inmate inserts his hand through a slot in the locked cell door to have his cuffs removed, while the other cell mate waits with his hands still locked in cuffs before they are also removed by placing his hands through the slot.

A similar procedure is used with three to five inmates while entering and exiting the recreational cage area, she said.

The third inmate, allegedly an asthmatic, purportedly died after officers sprayed pepper gas into the recreation cage to break up a fight.

Pies attributed the rise in violence to the restrictive SMU environment and said everyone inside is at risk.

The environment “strains the prison staff who daily work with people who are effectively caged like animals without adequate psychological counseling, work assignments, exercise, and preparation for eventual release from prison,” she said.

Ciolli said the Lewisburg Prison Projects concerns are inaccurate and misleading.

“Although we can not discuss specifics due to the fact all three (inmate deaths) are currently under investigation, what I can tell you is USP Lewisburg ensures the safety and security of the public, staff, as well as inmates through providing a controlled environment which meets each inmate’s need for security through the elimination of violence, predatory behavior, gang activity, drug use, and inmate weapons,” Ciolli said.

“Appropriate health care is provided for all inmates housed at our facility. We maintain accreditation through the American Correctional Association in addition to The Joint Commission on Health Care.”

Ciolli did not respond to a question about services provided to inmates to alleviate their aggressive behavior and prepare them for life outside prison.

According to a Council of Prison Local 33 website that tracks daily incident reports, between Sept. 13 and 22, there were 11 different incidents involving inmates fighting one another in cells, recreational cages and yards or becoming aggressive with an officer.

Trop said the problems at USP Lewisburg, which has been in operation since 1932, may be attributed to a too-quick transition from general population to SMU.

One veteran prison employee said the old building was converted from a maximum security prison to an SMU without major structural changes.

Lewisburg Prison Project board members attempted to visit the facility earlier this month — which it has done previously — but the tentatively scheduled tour was abruptly canceled.

On Sept. 9, Pies received an e-mail from Ciolli who cited security issues for the decision and said the “no-tour” policy was not likely to change.

The board suggested a limited visit to include only the general population area where 200 inmates are held, but were still rebuffed.

“It seems to signify the danger level is going up,” Pies said, “and possibly for staff members as well.”

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