Lewisburg Penitentiary

2014 FILE PHOTO: An aerial view of the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary.

A joint National Public Radio and Marshall Project report on alleged abuse of inmates inside the U.S. Penitentiary at Lewisburg is prompting members of an interfaith organization against torture to call on the U.S. Attorney General’s Office to investigate.

“We are gravely concerned about this,” said the Rev. Laura Markle Downton, director of U.S. prisons policy and program at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

The NPR/Marshall Project report, “Inside Lewisburg Prison: A choice between a violent cellmate or shackles” includes claims The Daily Item has written about for years regarding inmate allegations of mistreatment at the federal prison since it was converted in 2009 into a Special Management Unit (SMU). About 1,000 of the most dangerous and difficult to manage inmates from federal prisons across the country are placed in the program for a period of time before they are deemed suitable to return to general population.

The inmates, most of whom who are confined in two-man cells for 23 hours a day, claim they are put in hard restraints and isolation for hours, even days at a time, when they refuse to bunk with a cellmate for any reason, even out of fear for their safety. Lawsuits have been filed against the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), including one by former Lewisburg prisoner Sebastian Richardson, who describes being left in shackles for 28 days in 2011.

At least four Lewisburg penitentiary inmates have been killed by their cellmate since 2009, according to the NPR/Marshall Project report. 

Responding to last week’s report, BOP spokesman Justin Long said the safety and security of all inmates, staff and the public is a priority.

He said steps are taken to avoid placing inmates with mental health issues in the SMU and cited the BOP’s August decision to reduce the maximum amount of time inmates spend in the program to 24 months

There has been a decrease in serious assaults on staff and inmates in federal prisons across the country in recent years, Long said, decreasing the need for SMU placement at Lewisburg from 2,009 inmates in 2012 to 1,025 inmates as of Oct. 7.

“We demand from our staff uncompromising ethical conduct that respects the value and dignity of the men and women in all of our prisons nationwide,” Long said. “We take very seriously every allegation of misconduct, referring these allegations for investigation to our Office of Internal Affairs or to the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General.”

Downton said ongoing inmate claims of abuse warrant an independent investigation into the use of solitary confinement and hard restraints and lack of mental health treatment for inmates at Lewisburg prison.

“It is so (contrary) to best correctional practices. Most striking, since we’re seeing an interest by the Administration to reign in this practice of prolonged solitary confinement,” said Downton, who estimates 6 percent of the 192,00 federal inmates in the U.S. are  held in isolation each day. “Even the United Nations considers it a form of abuse.”

As of Monday, nearly 650 people have sent letters urging U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to investigate the Union County facility.

Local inmate advocate David Sprout hopes the national interest will result in an independent investigation to ensure the safety of inmates and staff.

“We’ve been trying to get an investigation for years,” said Sprout, a paralegal with the Lewisburg Prison Project.

He has appealed directly to U.S. Rep. Tom Marino, R-10 of Cogan Station, to launch a congressional inquiry and sent two separate letters to the congressman on June 21 and Aug. 11 reiterating his request. 

“I’ve gotten no response,” Sprout said. 

Marino’s communication specialist, Ainsley Holyfield, said Monday he is aware of the report and plans to “review it thoroughly” but would not comment due to pending litigation and open investigations within the BOP.

“We have full faith in the Federal Bureau of Prisons to adequately look into this matter as well as in the capability of our justice system,” she said.

Email comments to mmoore@dailyitem.com. Follow Marcia on Twitter@marciamoore4.

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