LEWISBURG - A special unit for incorrigible inmates in the federal penitentiary here is dangerous for both inmates and staff alike.
The Lewisburg Prison Project, which advocates for inmate rights, has issued a statement alleging the facility is plagued by a "plethora of flaws" that has increased tensions and may have contributed to three violent inmate deaths between May and July of this year.
The Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary has about 1,100 inmates - 200 of who are assigned to support service jobs and live under "general population" rules.
The approximately 900 others are assigned to a Special Management Unit and a multi-step program theoretically designed to help inmates earn their way back into the inmate general populations at other less-restrictive facilities.
When announced in 2008, the Special Management Unit (or SMU) was described as designed to attempt the rehabilitation of problem inmates.
However, SMU inmates get one hour of recreation per day, and the other 23 hours each day are spent in cells with an assigned cellmate.
The LPP claims the confinement, coupled with cells sometimes being shared by incompatible inmates, has created mayhem.
For several years the union representing the guards has complained through the media about dangerous working conditions.
The LPP's allegations, in essence, confirm those complaints, as have a string of recent U.S. Middle District Court cases involving inmate violence and brutal attacks on guards as well as other inmates.
A statement released by the LPP claimed two of the three deaths were the result of one cellmate attacking another while his hands were cuffed.
In both instances, the attacks are alleged to have occurred after one inmate had inserted his hands through a door slot and had cuffs removed and then attacked his cellmate who was still in cuffs.
The third death is alleged to have been caused by pepper gas fired into a cell to quell an altercation. The deceased, according to the LPP, was asthmatic and the victim of the attack.
The LPP statement alleges "prisoners (claim) the prison staff fails to protect" those being assaulted by cellmates because the typical response is to fire "rubber bullets and pepper gas into the cells until both men willingly handcuff themselves."
Inmates assigned to the special unit do not meet in group sessions. Instead, they are provided workbooks and get assignments that - if successfully completed and their behavior improves - can lead to less restrictions and eventually transfer to another prison's general population.
There is no classroom work, confirmed Andrew Ciolli, media spokesman at the penitentiary.
He said instructors make regular rounds of the cells to monitor inmate progress and likened the process to taking a "correspondence" course.
Ciolli responded to questions from the Sun-Gazette Tuesday and later e-mailed an "official" reaction describing the LPP's allegations as "inaccurate (and) misleading."
Ciollo said he was unable to discuss the three deaths in detail because of on-going federal investigations.
However, in the e-mailed response he maintained the staff works hard to guarantee the "safety and security of the public, staff, (and) inmates through ... a controlled environment (designed to provide) security through the elimination of violence, predatory behavior, gang activity, drug use, and inmate weapons."
"Appropriate health care is provided for all inmates housed at our facility," he added, "(and) we maintain accreditation through the American Correctional Association (and) the Joint Commission on Health Care."
The inmates in the special program are dangerous, and he insisted the staff tries to make sure inmates are not assigned cellmates likely to attack them.
"We monitor inmates daily," he said.
The LPP alleged "conditions in Lewisburg set up an almost guaranteed cycle of violence (that) strains the prison staff who daily work with people who are effectively caged like animals without adequate psychological counseling, work assignments, exercise, and preparation for eventual release from prison."