In late February, news of an apparent protest over access to razors emerged from the United States Penitentiary in Lewisburg. The message was, however, decidedly mixed.
What we do know is inmates pushed back after a policy change limited access to razors and prison officials’ refusal to listen to grievances. In response, inmates covered cell windows in violation of prison guidelines, which forced corrections officers to use tear gas, concussion grenades and pepper balls to intervene.
From that emerged two distinct narratives: On one side, inmates, through the activist group Lewisburg Prison Project, discussed burst eardrums, concussions and severed fingers. Prison project officials referred to it as a “major incident.”
On the other, prison officials thought so little of the incident they did not issue a press release, saying it was “minor,” describing the inmates’ injuries as insignificant.
Conventional wisdom said the truth was probably in between.
We are learning, however, the incident may have been much more serious than prison officials described publicly.
Last week, the union representing the corrections officers approached Sen. Pat Toomey and U.S. Rep. Tom Marino about a congressional inquiry into the incident and Warden David Ebbert’s reaction.
The COs paint a picture similar to that of the prison project. A special operations response team arrived on scene and “hardrestrained” nearly two dozen inmates and windows were blown out.
Sounds more than “minor.”
Dave Bartlett, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 148, wants the federal government to look into the incident and prison leaders’ response. “It’s a credibility issue. We all have to be held to a high standard or how else can the public be certain of what’s going on,” Bartlett said.
When credibility is lost, it is nearly impossible to restore. If those charged with keeping a dangerous inmate population in line have lost confidence in those in command of the 1,800-inmate prison, it is a serious rebuke.
The incident may have indeed required the force intensity and manpower deployed that day. We trust the professionals know better than us how to handle the inmate population.
But we also need to trust when something goes wrong, it is publicly acknowledged by all parties. This opens doors to appropriate review, internal and external, to offer critique or praise, and most important, a learning tool.
In this instance, even those working daily with the inmates don’t trust those in charge — never a positive development.