The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA


December 25, 2011

Penitentiary tries to curb inmate fights

LEWISBURG -- A federal lawsuit claims that the staff at the U.S. Penitentiary in Lewisburg disregards inmate safety concerns when making cell assignments, even while locking up prisoners in pairs 23 hours a day.

Warden Bryan Bledsoe disputes the allegations, saying that staff members take great care while juggling cell assignments, particularly when dealing with a population that is comprised of inmates who have demonstrated that they may be prone to violence or unwilling to abide by prison rules.

Tensions between inmates can be driven by gang affiliation or personal feuds. The federal Bureau of Prisons keeps files of known gang affiliations.

Prison officials say that there are 46 criminal gangs -- including biker gangs, street gangs and racist gangs -- represented at Lewisburg, and 38 percent of the 1,429 inmates are known gang members. With two inmates in most cells, that means roughly every other cell in the facility houses at least one gang member.

In addition to gang affiliations, regional conflicts frequently come into play. A gang member from the West Coast may have problems with East Coast members of the same gang, Bledsoe said.

While the bureau keeps files of known affiliation, because tensions can be so fluid, and the population of the prison changes constantly, inmates are told to alert staff if they encounter another inmate they believe will a source of conflict, Bledsoe said.

For instance, when inmates go to their recreation cages, if they see an inmate they are feuding with, they are told to return to their cells and then inform staff about the problem, he said.

Attorneys from the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project in Philadelphia filed the lawsuit on behalf of inmate Sebastian Richardson, 46, against several federal officials and corrections officers, including Thomas R. Kane, the acting director of the Bureau of Prisons, and Bledsoe.

The warden said that he could not comment specifically on Richardson's claims. But prior to the lawsuit, the inmate's concerns would have been considered through internal administrative hearings. An inmate who has exhausted all administrative appeals can then file a federal lawsuit.

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