Did Federal Prison Use Chains, Solitary to Punish Inmate for Not Accepting Violent Cellmate?

Alleged mistreatment of a Pennsylvania inmate who refused to accept his new cellmate has given rise to a class-action suit over conditions at the prison.

By Christopher Zoukis

Sebastian Richardson is under 5 feet tall, but is having an oversized impact on the federal prison system, particularly the U.S. Penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, home to the largest Special Management Unit (SMU) in the system.

The Lewisburg SMU, opened in 2008, houses over 1,000 inmates who are gang leaders posing special security problems — in 2011, Lewisburg officials estimated nearly 40 percent of inmates there were gang members — or inmates who have proved to be disciplinary problems at other prisons.

Inmates are supposed to finish the high-security SMU’s four-phase program in 18 to 24 months. The program keeps inmates confined to their cells all but an hour or two per day, with two inmates housed in most cells, some as tiny as 6 x 10 feet. Every three weeks, inmates are rotated to different cells, often getting different cellmates.

Incarcerated since 1994, while at the federal prison in Hazelton, West Virginia, Richardson got into a fistfight with a guard, drawing a conviction adding two years to his sentence and getting him transferred to Lewisburg in March 2010. Initially, he lived with a cellmate without incident. But in February 2011, that all came to an abrupt end.

Prison guards told Richardson he’d be moving into a new cell, with a new cellmate, who went by the nickname “The Prophet” and was best known for two things: insane-sounding rants and assaulting his cellmates — he was thought to have attacked more than 20 other inmates. Richardson refused to accept the dangerous new cellmate. Guards then put him into solitary confinement, in “four-point” restraints (in which arms and legs are shackled to a bed frame), or painful chains tightened across the inmate’s chest and connected to handcuffs and shackles. Richardson claims he was left in restraints for all but a few hours for 28 straight days, contrary to BOP policy, as punishment for refusing the new cellmate.

With help from the nonprofit Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, Richardson filed a federal lawsuit alleging the acting director of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), a regional BOP director, and the warden and other officers at Lewisburg had violated his Fifth and Eighth Amendment rights by a setup promoting violent conflicts between inmates and failing to take adequate countermeasures, noting the Lewisburg SMU had recorded 272 incidents of inmate-on-inmate violence in less than four years. He also sought to represent all current and future Lewisburg SMU inmates in a class action.

A federal judge first ordered Richardson to narrow his case, then in 2013 ruled it moot, since the inmate had been transferred out of Lewisburg six weeks after he filed the court-ordered revision. But this July, a three-judge panel of the 3rd Circuit reversed, reviving the class-action claims and finding Richardson qualified to lead it.

The case, plus continuing violence at Lewisburg —where four inmates were killed by cellmates in two years — attracted increased public attention. This August, BOP adopted some modifications to the SMU program. In October, the Marshall Project and National Public Radio combined for a series of broadcasts highlighting Richardson’s case and the conditions at Lewisburg. After Thanksgiving, 37 church groups and civil and human liberties organizations joined to write Attorney General Lynch asking the Justice Department to investigate conditions at Lewisburg.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at  PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.