By John Finnerty
---- — 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.
The warden said that in almost every case, prison staff can find workable pairs of cellmates. "Corrections judgment" indicates that an inmate who insists he cannot live with any other inmate is trying to manipulate prison officials to get a solitary cell, the warden said.
In Richardson's lawsuit, the inmate claims that he and his first cellmate got along for the eight months they shared quarters. On Feb. 3, Richardson was paired with a new inmate, known as "the Prophet."
He alleges "the Prophet" has assaulted about 20 other inmates, including some at Lewisburg, and he refused to bunk with him.
Richardson said that when he refused to share a cell with that inmate, he was placed in restraints for 28 days.
Bledsoe said that restraints are only used in Lewisburg when inmates threaten violence. When an inmate is in restraints, corrections officers and medical staff must provide stepped-up monitoring. As a result, the prison staff will not use restraints unless there is a good reason. However, once an inmate is placed in restraints, they are not removed until staff members are convinced the inmate's threat of violence is over.
"We have cases where inmates will say, 'If you remove these restraints, I'm going to kill you,' " Bledsoe said, so the restraints remain. There is no set limit for how long restraints may remain in place, he said.
Inside the penitentiary, common areas include architectural touches uncommon in most modern correction facilities. There are gothic arches and decorative metalwork in the administrative office area.
The floor of the common area leading to the dining hall is covered in red tile. The dining hall features soaring ceilings and looks more like a university dining room than the cafeteria in a penitentiary.
It bustles with activity at lunch time, but the space that once accommodated more than 1,000 inmates at meals now only serves 200 or so because 80 percent of the facility's inmates eat in their cells. The only inmates who eat in the dining hall are the general population inmates who remain to cook meals and clean the facility.
In the special management unit system, inmates begin their sentence in cramped cells with few privileges. The smallest cells are only 6 feet 2 inches wide by 10 feet long. Food comes through a slot in the door. Inmates are handcuffed before they are allowed to leave their cells. Outside their cells, inmates shower in cages and have recreation time in cages. Recreation cages are 10 feet by 15 feet. A law library in C-Block consists of a computer enclosed in a metal protective cage and a green plastic chair.
There are no surveillance cameras in cells, Bledsoe said. Rather, corrections officers patrol a walkway along the cells, glancing through a narrow window in the steel door at least once every 30 minutes to ensure that none of the inmates is in duress, he said.
Inmates progress through the special management unit during a two-year period, a program that includes a variety of counseling services, including anger management. As inmates progress, they are shuffled to slightly larger cells with more privileges, Bledsoe said. In the E-Unit, inmates can only communicate with visitors by video, he said. Further along, inmates are allowed to have face-to-face visitors. And as they near completion of their time in the special management unit, inmates are allowed to mingle in "the range," the walkway outside their cells, while remaining in their cell blocks.
Andrew Ciolli, a spokesman for the penitentiary, said that 613 inmates have completed the special management unit program. Ciolli said the institution did not have data about how many inmates went through the special management unit only to return after repeated problems.
Bledsoe said that there is something of a Catch-22 when it comes to determining how to house the most dangerous inmates. One group of advocates will protest that is cruel and unusual punishment to house inmates in solitary confinement for prolonged periods of time. On the other hand, when inmates are housed in pairs in special management units, advocates and inmates raise concerns about the potential for violence between cellmates.
Since the penitentiary was converted to the special management unit model, three corrections officers have been stabbed by inmates and two prisoners in the past six months have been killed by cellmates they'd known and gotten along with for many months, even years, Bledsoe said.
Bledsoe said that while Lewisburg deals with some of the most difficult inmates, and has occasional violence problems because of it, he believes the special management unit program has contributed to a system-wide drop in violence.
Inmates elsewhere in the system simply do not want to end up in Lewisburg, he said.