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A Troubled Federal Prison Unit Gets New Life In A Different State

Instead of changing its conditions and practices, The Bureau of Prisons is simply moving a problem-plagued federal prison unit in Pennsylvania to Illinois.

Drawing of a cell by Patrick Bearup, a man held in solitary confinement.
Patrick Bearup, by permission from Architects / Designers / Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR)

A Troubled Federal Prison Unit Gets New Life In A Different State

Instead of changing its conditions and practices, The Bureau of Prisons is simply moving a problem-plagued federal prison unit in Pennsylvania to Illinois.

On Feb. 3, 2011, staff at Pennsylvania federal prison USP Lewisburg’s Special Management Unit told Sebastian Richardson to “cuff up” and accept a new cellmate. Richardson was terrified; the man with whom he was about to share the cell, known as “The Prophet,” had attacked over 20 cellmates. The Prophet had just been released from hard restraints, a combination of metal handcuffs, ankle shackles, and a chain that encircled his chest. He was also, according to Richardson, ”rocking back and forth in agitation as he waited outside” the cell door.

Richardson refused to submit to being placed in handcuffs or accept his new cellmate. So a lieutenant and a Use of Force team member took him to a laundry area where he was stripped, put into paper clothes, and placed in hard restraints that made him scream in pain. He was then placed in a cell with another man who was also in hard restraints.

Three days later, Richardson was moved to another cell, again with another man in restraints. That man, Richardson later said, “was pleading for help because of the pain caused by the restraints. He stated that he could not breathe because of the chest chain and he could not feel his hands because of the tight handcuffs.”

On Feb. 10, Richardson was placed in four-point restraints, in which a person is shackled to a bed. He spent over eight hours this way and his requests to use the bathroom were denied, causing him to urinate on himself. Richardson was then placed in hard restraints for another 13 days.

By Feb. 23, Richardson had spent 20 days in restraints. He was allowed a shower, his first in weeks. Then, staff attempted to give him another dangerous cellmate. Richardson refused and was once again placed in restraints. Richardson spent a total of 28 days in restraints, with 15 different cellmates, all in hard restraints “applied in the same painful and torturous manner.”

Since its opening in 2008, USP Lewisburg’s Special Management Unit—or SMU—has been hit with civil rights lawsuits challenging its treatment of people with mental illnesses and its use of restraints as punishment. In 2011, Richardson sued the Bureau of Prisons, which operates USP Lewisburg, over his conditions of confinement. In 2017, SMU prisoners Jusamuel Rodriguez McCreary, Richard C. Anamanya, and Joseph R. Coppola sued the Bureau of Prisons alleging that they were among dozens of men with serious mental illnesses who were denied adequate mental health care. “Men bang on the walls of their cells” in the SMU, according to the lawsuit, “they refuse to leave their cells for months, even for a shower; some men mutilate their bodies with whatever objects they can obtain; others carry on delusional conversations with voices they hear in their heads.” That same year, the Office of the Inspector General sharply criticized the prison’s mental health treatment as well as its deteriorating physical condition. (It was was built in 1931.) SMU cells, for example, are about 58 square feet, far smaller than the 80 square foot minimum recommended by the American Correctional Association. Also in 2017, the District of Columbia Corrections Information Council, a prison monitoring organization, visited Lewisburg and found that staff continued to use restraints, resulting in injuries to incarcerated people as well as a lack of access to emergency call buttons, programming, and mental health services.

As of August 20th, Lewisburg’s SMU houses approximately 830 people who are there due to a history of violence or participation in gangs. They are expected to complete three levels of programming within one year, all as they are locked in their cells for 23 hours a day.

Solitary confinement is typically defined as the practice of isolating people in cells for 22 to 24 hours per day. According to statistics compiled by Solitary Watch,  80,000 to 100,000 incarcerated persons are held in some form of isolated confinement. Though SMU prisoners are locked down all but one hour of the day, the Bureau of Prisons claims that “solitary confinement does not exist” in the federal prison system and considers placement in the SMU to be “non-punitive.” It’s a rosy characterization roundly rejected by criminal justice advocates, incarcerated people, and reporters alike; “USP Lewisburg might be the worst place in the federal prison system,” Justin Peters wrote in Slate in 2013, “so bad that some inmates there actually dream of being transferred to the famously isolating Supermax facility in Florence, Colorado.”

But instead of changing the conditions and practices of the Lewisburg SMU, the Bureau of Prisons announced in June that it will simply move it to a “state of the art maximum-security prison” in Thomson, Illinois. The Bureau of Prisons purchased the facility from the state of Illinois in 2012; state budget cuts have kept the nearly 20-year-old Thomson largely empty. “The Special Management Unit (SMU) at AUSP Thomson will operate in accordance with BOP Program Statement 5217.02 ‘Special Management Units,’” a BOP spokesperson wrote in an email to The Appeal. (The BOP declined to comment on the Richardson lawsuit.)

But advocates say that it’s the SMU model—not its location—that’s the problem.

Dave Sprout, a paralegal with the Lewisburg Prison Project, an advocacy organization focused on Central Pennsylvania’s prisons, says that the 23-hour daily lockdown in the SMU is detrimental to the mental health of prisoners and dangerous. He notes that the men spend their one hour out of cell in a recreation cage and they  can be alone or among others, which increases the risk of attack and assault. As a result, many decline their one hour out of cell.

Back in their cells, many of the SMU’s prisoners are placed with cellmates, a practice known as double-celling. “Most of the problems we’ve seen [at Lewisburg] comes from being double-celled,” Sprout told The Appeal. Double-celling has led to fights, attacks and even deaths. From 2008 until July 2011, Lewisburg’s SMU had 272 reported incidents of violence. Between 2010 and 2017, at least four men at Lewisburg were killed by their cellmates. A culture of violence inside the Bureau of Prisons also means that many prisoners end up facing the federal death penalty. In June, two federal prisoners were sentenced to death for murdering another prisoner at USP Beaumont in East Texas. It appears that the practice of double-celling will continue at Thomson; a BOP spokesperson told The Appeal that two beds are provided in each cell there.

The opening of Thomson as an SMU has been applauded by U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat, as a job creator for the northern part of Illinois. Durbin’s support contrasts sharply with his prior stances on solitary confinement, including leading the first Congressional hearing on solitary in 2012. In April, Durbin introduced a federal bill to limit the use of solitary confinement. Durbin’s office did not respond to The Appeal’s request for comment.

By the end of the year, the BOP will begin transferring people from Lewisburg to Thomson with warden Donald Hudson, who was the associate warden at USP Lewisburg, at the helm. Richardson’s lawsuit names Hudson as one of the defendants, alleging that Hudson was “responsible for custody and security at the institution, including decisions involving cellmate and recreation cage placements and the use of restraints.” Advocates and attorneys say the move will merely shift the SMU’s problems to another state.  “History has shown that supermaxes are destructive failures, torturing everyone housed in them,” Deborah Golden, who represented Richardson in his 2011 lawsuit and is now an attorney at the Human Rights Defense Center, told The Appeal. “Housing people in unconstitutional conditions is unconstitutional, no matter the state.”

Why Prisoners are Striking Today

Prisoners are striking to end death by incarceration, prison slavery and poor living conditions.

Photo illustration by Anagraph. Photo by Justin Merriman / Getty Images

Why Prisoners are Striking Today

Prisoners are striking to end death by incarceration, prison slavery and poor living conditions.

Prisoners across the country are launching a strike today, on the anniversary of the death of incarcerated activist George Jackson. Jackson, a member of the Black Panther Party and a prison activist, was a leading voice and theorist in the 1970s prison movement — a time that saw over 300 uprisings behind bars. On April 24, prisoners in South Carolina announced the strike, which is expected to last for 19 days and ends on the anniversary of the Attica prison uprising in New York.

The call to action—created by members of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS), a group of people incarcerated in South Carolina that organizes for prisoners’ rights—lists a variety of ways prisoners can get involved, including work strikes, sit-in protests, boycotts and hunger strikes. Amani Sawari, a spokesperson for the protests, said outside organizers have heard of plans or wishes to strike in 17 states (but out of fear of retaliation, the states will not be named until after Aug. 21). Over 150 organizations have expressed solidarity with the strike, including BYP-100 and the NYC Jericho Movement and solidarity rallies outside prisons have been planned in at least 10 cities.

With the announcement of the strike, prisoners also released a list of 10 demands that included improving the conditions of prisons immediately, rescinding the Prison Litigation Reform Act,  restoring the voting rights of all confined citizens, an immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws, ending death by incarceration, and rehabilitation services for all prisoners, including violent offenders.  

The Prison Litigation Reform Act, a law passed under President Bill Clinton in 1996, places barriers and restrictions on prisoners trying to file a federal lawsuit including requiring prisoners to go through all administrative grievance processes within their prison before filing a case, not waiving court fees, limiting litigation costs that can be paid to the prisoner’s attorney after a successful lawsuit, and restricting court cases that allege only emotional or mental harm. The result, is a lack of access to the courts for prisoners when their constitutional rights are violated. JLS is calling for the law to be rescinded.

Their second demand, which reads: “an immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor,” has been a theme in work strikes over the past five years and speaks to a JLS slogan, “#Abolishthe13th,” referencing the 13th Amendment of the constitution.

In an interview with Shadowproof, a JLS representative incarcerated in South Carolina described prison as a continuation of slavery. “I can remember my great-granddaddy and them, they were talking about it. Prison is slavery. They never really referred to it as prison or as jail, they referred to it as being forced back onto the plantations again. This is something we’ve always understood. Of course, as things evolved more, the system evolved, it’s a little more sophisticated, and you know people tried to change the language and there was a disconnect.”  

Another demand, ending death by incarceration, targets lengthy prison sentences. Death by incarceration is “any exorbitant amount of time that a person is given behind bars, assuming that they’ll die behind bars based on the length of that sentence,” Sawari explained. Life without parole is one example of death by incarceration—but it can also include sentences like 50 years behind bars. In 2017, over 200,000 people were serving life sentences or “virtual” life sentences (50 years or more), according to The Sentencing Project. 50,000 of those people were serving life without the possibility of parole.

“There’s no way that you can look at someone when they’re being sentenced and decide when they’re gonna finish their process of rehabilitation,” Sawari argued. “Especially [when it’s] a young person. A 17-year-old or a 16-year-old being sentenced to life in prison is absolutely ridiculous. So prisoners are calling that no person ever be sentenced to death by incarceration.”


A 1971 poster for an Attica memorial rally
Library of Congress

A week before the strike was announced, Lee County Correctional Facility in South Carolina made national headlines when a prison riot left seven people dead—Raymond Scott, Eddie Gaskins, Cornelius McClary, Corey Scott, Damonte Rivera, Joshua Jenkins, and Michael Milledge—all of them prisoners. The Department of Corrections blamed the riot on contraband; saying that opposing gang members were fighting over territory, money, and prohibited cell phones. The solution, the DOC asserted, was to block all cell phone signals in the prison system. But prisoners painted a more complicated picture, saying that the overcrowding has made prison conditions unbearable and guards waiting hours to intervene resulted in the high body count. While the DOC is trying to blame cell phones for the violence, it’s those same phones that allow prisoners to organize, speak to the outside world and the media, and keep in touch with family amid exorbitant prison phone fees.

South Carolina prisoners and members of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, decided to announce the national prison strike in response to this deadly riot. “Prisons can’t function without prisoners doing the work that needs to be done. Prisoners [are] the ones that work in the kitchen, that do the cleaning. They manage so many different aspects of the prison,” Sawari told The Appeal.

Since the riot on April 15, Sawari reported that units at Lee County Correctional Institution have been on lockdown. During lockdown, prisoners are allowed out of their cell for only one hour a day, a practice that has labeled solitary confinement, and often must eat in their cells.

The strike set to begin today is just the latest protest in a trail of strikes that have been organized inside prisons over the last five years. In 2013, 30,000 prisoners went on hunger strike in the California prison system to protest indefinite, long-term solitary confinement. Two years later, the state agreed to limit its use of indefinite solitary—with mixed results. In 2016, prisoners in Alabama coordinated a national labor strike on Sept. 9, after conducting multiple work strikes within their state prison systems. The strike was to protest prison labor and the low wages paid to prisoners; work stoppages occurred in Alabama, Florida and Michigan. Prisoners in Texas, Alabama, and Florida were thrown into solitary confinement for mentioning that national strike.

“Let this nationwide strike be a wake up; Prisoners will destroy the crops,” read a statement about today’s strike that JLS released on Aug. 10. “We will not comply. We will not allow you to exploit our families’ hard earned dollars anymore. Striking the match let it go up in a blaze. We are humans!”

In the statement, JLS said that influential prisoners have already faced repression for aligning with the strike and that other prisoners say they are being threatened by guards not to participate in the strike. In Ohio, Imam Siddique Abdullah Hasan was sent to solitary confinement on July 27 because of correspondence about the strike. According to Ohio’s Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, Hasan’s conduct report listed five violations including rioting or causing others to riot and “engaging in or encouraging a group demonstration or work stoppage.”

But JLS says the strike will go on. “Fundamentally, it’s a human rights issue. Prisoners understand they are being treated as animals. We know that our conditions are causing physical harm and deaths that could be avoided if prison policy makers actually gave a damn,” the statement said. “Prisons in America are a war zone. Every day prisoners are harmed due to conditions of confinement. For some of us, it’s as if we are already dead, so what do we have to lose?”

This article was produced in partnership with The Nation.

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Angola Prisoner Says He Was Punished For Organizing Against 'Slavery'

Ronald Brooks was helping plan a prison strike when he was abruptly transferred to a new prison hours away.

Ronald Brooks posted a Facebook Live video speaking out against "slavery in the jails and prisons."
Photo illustration by Anagraph/Decarcerate Louisiana Facebook

Angola Prisoner Says He Was Punished For Organizing Against 'Slavery'

Ronald Brooks was helping plan a prison strike when he was abruptly transferred to a new prison hours away.

In May, a group of prisoners at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola, laid down and refused to work. After the work stoppage, they continued organizing in anticipation of a nationwide prison strike planned for Aug. 21. But one of the movement’s leaders was abruptly transferred to a new facility after two decades in Angola in what his family claims was a retaliatory measure.

On June 20, Ronald Brooks recorded a Facebook Live video with a contraband cell phone, his face obscured by fabric. The post explained the purpose and goals of the group he had been helping to build, Decarcerate Louisiana. The group was also organizing the inmates to take part in the nationwide prison protests, planned to coincide with the 47th anniversary of the death of George Jackson, a Black Panther, while he was incarcerated in San Quentin. “Decarcerate Louisiana is a human rights movement advocating for human rights and human dignity of people inside and outside of the prison,” he said in the video. “We are anti-slavery and are organizing to transform our ghettos into communities and our jails and prisons into places of human redemption.”

He argued that the loophole in the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery for all but those convicted of a crime “must go.” Prisoners across the country are sometimes paid nothing for their work, and in Louisiana the Prison Policy Initiative reports that they are paid 4 cents to $1 an hour for jobs both supporting the prison facility and work that gets sold to outside agencies and businesses, much of it heavy field labor.

“Please join us in our organizing to change the laws to abolish slavery in the jails and prisons and to tear down ghettos that serve as a pipeline to prison,” Brooks said, leaving information for how to donate and support the organization’s work.

A few days later, his family said, he was transferred out of Angola to the David Wade Correctional Center, a notorious facility in North Louisiana that has faced more than 200 federal lawsuits from inmates since it opened in 1980. Brooks had been held at Angola since he was incarcerated at age 19; he turns 40 this year.

Brooks’s mother and sister say that Jerry Goodwin, a warden at David Wade, told them Brooks was transferred as punishment for having the cell phone and because he had been organizing his fellow prisoners to take part in the nationwide protest. Goodwin did not return multiple requests for comment.

The Department of Corrections “transferred him out to kind of break up anything that’s going on, any communication or things like that to try to stop them from moving forward with their rights,” his mother, Margrette Peppers Ray, said.

The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections confirmed to The Appeal that Brooks had been moved, but disputed that the transfer was in retaliation for his organizing work or for having a cell phone. “Any offender sentenced to the Department of Public Safety and Corrections may be transferred at any time to any appropriate facility,” communications director Ken Pastorick said in an email. “Transfers are not punitive in nature and are not part of the disciplinary process.”

Ray said her son had been caught with a cell phone in the past, which typically resulted in its confiscation and the loss of some privileges. “They don’t just take you out,” she said. “To be moved totally from a facility [has] to do with the fact that they knew that Ronald was being a human rights advocate. … What they wanted to do was to move him away … because he was an organizer.”

It also wouldn’t be the first time that the Department of Corrections was accused of transferring a prisoner in retaliation. William Kissinger was transferred from Angola to the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center for 20 months before being returned to Angola in September. He had previously been at Angola for 27 years. The abrupt transfer came after Kissinger started corresponding with a reporter at The Advocate for a series of articles on Angola. The DOC ended up settling a lawsuit by agreeing to return him to Angola and reinstate him in his former job at his previous pay rate.

The impact of being moved to a new and unfamiliar facility has taken a toll on Brooks and his family. “It’s a huge change, it’s a huge shock,” Brooks’s sister, Key, said. “To just uproot him from a place that he’s been for over 20 years.”

His family members haven’t been told whether and when he might return to Angola, and the DOC didn’t respond to repeated inquiries.

But the transfer hasn’t discouraged Brooks from organizing. He sent his mother a declaration that he and 10 other prisoners signed, and she shared it with The Appeal. In it, they accuse the Department of Corrections of subjecting them to “inhumane conditions” at David Wade, including temperatures of 100 or more degrees without air conditioning, enough fans, or ice. To cool off, the declaration says they have to lie on the concrete floor or put their feet in toilet water. It also alleges that they are made to wear “thick, hot jumpsuits” all day in that weather, all of which has led to heat exhaustion.

The DOC didn’t respond to repeated requests to comment on the allegations.

Since Brooks entered Angola, he has been concerned about the conditions he has witnessed, Ray said. “He’s been an organizer going on something like years and years,” she said, and noted that social media and access to cell phones in recent years allowed him to do it on a larger scale.

“The thing about Ronald …  even though he’s incarcerated, he’s always concerned about what he can do to help the conditions,” Ray said. “He’s really trying to help and bring attention and shed light on what’s going on.”

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