By Francis Scarcella

The Daily Item

LEWISBURG -- A voice from a cage cut through the chilly morning air Wednesday in the outdoor recreation area of the U.S. Penitentiary at Lewisburg.

"I'll be out in a week!"

Another inmate, also clad in bright orange and part of the 78-year-old prison's special management unit -- composed of the worst of the worst in the federal penal system -- begged to differ.

"I doubt it," he screamed back, "because you haven't even seen the warden yet."

That would be Warden Bryan Bledsoe, who Wednesday unlocked the doors of the facility to the media to discuss safety measures at the prison that has seen a spate of violence since becoming an SMU in 2009.

At the outset of the three-hour tour, a bar code of invisible ink was stamped on the back of visitors' hands, and the guests were searched, a process Andrew Ciollo, prison spokesman, said was mandatory for anyone entering the facility.

That would include actor Michael Douglas.

Douglas visits the Lewisburg penitentiary regularly to see his son, Cameron Douglas, who was sentenced to five years in a federal lockup for conspiring to sell crystal meth and for heroin possession.

"Everyone goes through the same process and we wanted the media to see exactly what goes on here," Ciolli said. "We want to be straight up with everything we do."

Ciolli led the small group to the office of Bledsoe, who spoke about the prison for about an hour.

"We are proud of what we do here," the warden said. "We provide a vital function for the community and federal prisons across the country."

The goal of the SMU, in which troublesome inmates are in lockdown 23 hours a day, is to rehabilitate them so they can return to the general prison population.

"This system is designed for inmates to help correct some of the problems they have," Bledsoe said. "This system works."

Each section of the penitentiary is guarded by federal security officers with batons, who keep a close eye on surroundings and movements.

"All of our staff is trained to be on alert for anything they see going on," Bledsoe said.

"We make sure that we do all we can to keep everything safe."

Several blocks of cells -- each with two inmates living in an 8-foot by 10-foot area -- were opened to reveal how prisoners are housed.

"We do everything we can to screen inmates to try and match them up so problems don't arise," Bledsoe said.

"If it means putting gang members in with gang members, then that's what we do."

Inmates in their cells on Wednesday read magazines and paperback books, did pushups and situps, and, every time the warden passed by, said they needed to talk to him.

"I make my rounds here and I try to get familiar with them because you can learn a lot by listening to them and letting them talk," Bledsoe said. "It is a big part of what I do."

Inmates who exhibit improved behavior are allowed to stroll around their cell block.

"These are guys that have been doing well in the program so they get to move around more," Bledsoe said.

The warden showed the facility's old auditorium and told the group that because of the lockdown status in Lewisburg, most of it isn't used any more.

"This is a part of history here," Bledsoe said, "and the benches you are looking at have been sat in by Jimmy Hoffa and John Gotti. We only use a section of this now for inmates that earned the right to come up here and work out."

Bledsoe was proud of the cafeteria.

"As you can see, we have a lot more space in here because of the lockdown, so we actually put the food in carts and we are able to plug them in the wall to keep them warm," Bledsoe said. "We are really controlling the situation here."

The warden's tour made its way to the outside yard, where inmates are kept in cages during their hourlong recreation period.

"As you can see," Bledsoe said, "these guys are out here getting exercise and using their time."

And waiting to talk to the warden about moving on.

• E-mail comments to fscarcella@dailyitem.com

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