LEWISBURG — An inmate at the U.S. Penitentiary at Lewisburg has filed a civil lawsuit claiming conditions in the special management unit are “cruel and unusual” punishment and have led to the death of two prisoners.
Once an inmate is assigned to the SMU, he must spend 23 hours a day with another violent criminal. If he refuses, he must spend 24 hours a day shackled in chains, bound so tightly it is difficult for him to eat or use the toilet, according to the lawsuit filed Wednesday on behalf of inmate Sebastian Richardson.
Nowhere else in Pennsylvania is the practice of punitive shackling employed the way it is at the SMU at Lewisburg, said Jennifer Tobin, a prison advocacy attorney whose organization deals with federal and state prisons across the commonwealth.
Attorneys from the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project in Philadelphia filed the lawsuit on behalf of Richardson, 46, against several federal officials and corrections officers, including Thomas R. Kane, the acting director of the Bureau of Prisons, and Lewisburg Warden Bryan Bledsoe.
Unable to specifically address the lawsuit’s allegations, Lewisburg Penitentiary spokesman Andrew Ciolli said the primary focus is for the safety and security of inmates, staff and the public.
“We would not intentionally do anything that would put someone in a harmful situation,” he said.
Tobin called the shackling practices at Lewisburg the most “egregious” she has encountered while serving as an advocacy attorney. Tobin was the attorney used by the Lewisburg Prison Project when the group sued Northumberland County Prison on behalf of inmates, a case that ended with a $1.5 million settlement.
Richardson’s lawsuit claims inmates held for 23 hours a day in the SMU are forced to endure daily “unconstitutional and unconscionable conditions” and are punished if they refuse to share a cell with another inmate they fear will pose a threat to them.
The SMU was established at the facility in 2008 to house inmates from across the country with a history of violence and gang involvement.
The program is designed to move inmates from the restrictive unit back to the general population.
About 1,100 inmates are placed in the two-person cell in the SMU regardless of compatibility, Richardson claims.
Although they receive one hour of recreation per day in a recreation cage, he said, many inmates remain in the cell out of fear of assault from other prisoners.
“These conditions place inmates with a history of violence and gang membership in close quarters for every hour of every day, leading to an obvious and pervasive threat of violence,” the suit said.
The practice of having inmates share cells in special management units is employed unevenly across the federal prison system. At one point, the penitentiary in Marion, Ill., had inmates in the SMU sharing cells, but abandoned the practice because of problems with violence, Tobin said.
At the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colo., inmates are held in solitary confinement. The Lewisburg special management unit is considered a step down from the supermax in Florence.
From 2008 until July 2011, there were 272 reported incidents of an inmate assaulting another inmate at Lewisburg.
Adam Martin, 34, died in July 2010 at the Lewisburg Penitentiary following a fight with another inmate.
Richardson’s complaints have been raised before.
In an interview with The Daily Item last year, veteran corrections officer Daniel Bensigner and Angela Trop, member of the Lewisburg Prison Project, said the violence level in the SMU is increased due to the environment created by prison officials.
Richardson is seeking compensatory and punitive damages on behalf of himself, as well as condition changes on behalf of all current and future Lewisburg Penitentiary inmates.
An alleged member of the “Bottoms Boys” street gang in Louisiana, Richardson was convicted of drug trafficking and served time in Lewisburg in 2007 and 2008. He was returned to the facility in 2010.
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 said he refused to bunk with him.
As a result of his refusal, Richardson claims he was placed in painful restraints for 28 days between Feb. 3 and March 2 that caused intense pain, swelling and nerve damage, and made it difficult to breathe and walk.
He claims he wasn’t provided medical treatment or allowed a shower for weeks, despite his requests.
Throughout the month, he was kept in a cell with inmates. The only way out of restraints, he claims he was told by staff, was to accept “the Prophet” as his cellmate.
At one point, Richardson claims, a corrections officer asked whether he would accept as a cellmate an inmate who had stabbed him while they were at another prison.
He was again put in restraints in May and June for refusing to bunk with other inmates he feared.
The suit alleges staff ignores or chooses not to act when inmates complain about a potential cellmate posing a safety risk, and that the facility has a policy that staff won’t enter a cell or recreation cage to intervene when violence occurs.
The use of restraints as punishment is a violation of the federal Bureau of Prisons policy that allows them only when effective means of control have failed or are impractical.
“This punishment exists wholly outside of the BOP disciplinary system,” the complaint said.