Inside Lewisburg Prison: A Choice Between A Violent Cellmate Or Shackles At one of the toughest prisons in America, doubling up inmates in cells designed for solitary confinement can lead to violence, and for some who refuse a cellmate, handcuffs and chains.
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Inside Lewisburg Prison: A Choice Between A Violent Cellmate Or Shackles

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Inside Lewisburg Prison: A Choice Between A Violent Cellmate Or Shackles

Inside Lewisburg Prison: A Choice Between A Violent Cellmate Or Shackles

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To understand what we're about to tell you, imagine your wrists are chained together at your waist or in front of your chest so tightly that you can barely move them. Now imagine your ankles are shackled together, too. And now just stay like that for hours or for 28 days.


That's how our investigation found restraints have been used behind closed doors at the U.S. Penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pa. NPR's Joseph Shapiro teamed for this investigation with Christie Thompson, a reporter with The Marshall Project, a news organization that reports on criminal justice issues. Here's Joe with our report.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: It's January 2014, and corrections officers at Lewisburg prison drag an inmate named Royce Brown from a cell. A warning - the sound of his protest on this videotape may be disturbing to some listeners. His hands and legs were already cuffed in the cell. Now outside the cell, officers strap him to a stretcher.


ROYCE BROWN SR: (Yelling).

SHAPIRO: One officer faces the camera and narrates what's happening like a local TV reporter at the scene of an accident. These tapes are made to show whether officers followed correct procedures.


UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #1: We are currently in Dog Block first floor, specifically cell 01, duty inmate Brown, register number 03724015.

SHAPIRO: Federal Bureau of Prisons policy allows restraints to be used on prisoners as a safety measure and only as a short-term and last alternative. But NPR's investigation with the Marshall Project found that restraints are used frequently and harshly and as punishment at Lewisburg in the Special Management Unit, a program for about 1,200 inmates who are considered some of the most dangerous in the federal system.

The Bureau of Prisons declined our request for an interview. In their responses to lawsuits, they say they follow the rules for using restraints. But inmates dispute that in lawsuits and interviews. And Royce Brown says this tape backs him up.




UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #2: Inmate Brown, stand up.

BROWN SR: I am (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #4: Get on your knees.

SHAPIRO: A half dozen guards take Brown to a special cell painted pink where he is put in the most extreme form of restraint, four-point restraints. They lift him in thin, orange paper clothes face-up onto a concrete slab. They cuff his legs to one end, then his arms are stretched over his head and chained to the other end. Brown doesn't struggle as officers cuff him. The officers are careful and methodical.


BROWN SR: Come on man - damn. I'm in handcuffs. I can't do nothing to you, man. Why you doing this?

SHAPIRO: We interviewed 18 current and former inmates or their family members. We reviewed scores of lawsuits filed by inmates, and we found more than 40 complaints of abusive use of restraints. Inmates said restraints are used as punishment, or while in restraints, they were not able to eat their food or were forced to drink out of filthy toilets or that the chains were so tight they left permanent scars.

These complaints were backed up in two recent government audits and in our interviews with current and former prison staff. Courts are starting to take notice.


UNIDENTIFIED JUDGE: Listed for oral argument this morning, and that is...

SHAPIRO: Just last month, a judge told another inmate at Lewisburg he could go ahead and sue over his claims he was placed in restraints so tight that he passed out and was left with long-term nerve damage in his hands.


UNIDENTIFIED JUDGE: Richardson versus director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons...

SHAPIRO: And in the most significant lawsuit, a federal appeals court in July ruled in favor of another former inmate, a man named Sebastian Richardson, and said he can challenge the way he says restraints are used to punish inmates at Lewisburg.

Richardson's lawsuit stems from a day in 2011 when corrections officers came to his cell door with a new cellmate, someone who Richardson thought threatened his life.

DAVE SPROUT: They brought the Prophet to his door. That was his nickname, the Prophet.

SHAPIRO: Dave Sprout is a paralegal at the Lewisburg Prison Project, a group that advocates for prisoners there.

SPROUT: And he had a history of multiple cell assaults on previous inmates.

SHAPIRO: Court records show Richardson knew the Prophet as someone who talked incoherently and who attacked his cellmates. They'd be together in a cell for 23 to 24 hours a day.

SPROUT: Mr. Richardson is not a big guy. His nickname is Bam Bam, and he's approximately 5 foot tall.

SHAPIRO: Actually not even that tall - maybe 4-foot-11. Richardson refused to take that new cellmate even though he knew it meant he would end up in restraints. We found 20 inmates who in lawsuits and interviews say they were punished for refusing a cellmate and put in restraints maybe for several hours, sometimes for a few days, usually until they gave up and said they'd take the cellmate. Sebastian Richardson spent 28 days in restraints. Dave Sprout of the Lewisburg Prison Project reads from a letter Richardson wrote to him.

SPROUT: They placed the restraint on me so tight and my hands puffed up so bad I'm still in pain. Each finger looked like the Vlasic pickles - not the smaller ones - the medium size.

SHAPIRO: Prison officials in response to the lawsuit confirm that Richardson spent 28 days in restraints. They deny it was as punishment for refusing a cellmate. The Federal Bureau of Prisons recently acknowledged problems at Lewisburg. In August it released new rules to reduce the number of months inmates stay in the Special Management Unit and to improve mental health screening of inmates there. But the changes did not address the frequent use of restraints.

Royce Brown, the inmate we heard in the videotape at the start of this story, got out of prison last year. Now he's working as a long-distance truck driver, and he's saving his money to buy his own semi-truck.

BROWN SR: That's the Freightliner there, the red one.

SHAPIRO: At a truck stop in Delaware, he showed us the kind of truck he wants to own.

BROWN SR: I like the way the Kenilworth T-700 looks. It really looks like a man's truck but kind of stylish.

SHAPIRO: Back at his house, he wants to show us the tape of him at Lewisburg.


UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #5: Inmate Brown, do not resist my staff. Do you understand?

BROWN SR: I didn't assault nobody.

SHAPIRO: He wants someone else to watch, too - his son.

BROWN SR: Little Royce.

SHAPIRO: Little Royce.

ROYCE BROWN JR: Yeah, I guess you could say that.

BROWN SR: No doubt about that one.

SHAPIRO: Royce Jr. was a baby when his father went to prison on drug charges. He was graduating from high school when his father came home. Now the son has no job, and his father worries no direction. Royce Sr. doesn't want Royce Jr. making the same mistakes he made.

BROWN SR: I wanted him mostly to understand some of the atrocities of prison - right? - you know, where he may be headed if he doesn't start, you know, focusing a little bit more on what's out here.

SHAPIRO: Brown has studied these tapes frame by frame.

BROWN SR: Get ready to pause it. Pause.

SHAPIRO: In the tape, a corrections officer orders him to stop resisting, but Brown isn't moving. He's bent over as several officers hold his legs, arms, chest and head.


BROWN SR: The chain is extremely tight. The cuffs is as [expletive] - damn.

SHAPIRO: Brown's wife, Latisha, watches the tape and cries. Royce Jr. sits in pained silence and then says he understands now why his father is so strict.

BROWN JR: It was just crazy because seeing my father go through such hard times, I didn't understand why he was the way he is. I got a clearer idea of it now.

SHAPIRO: In the end, though, the tape is incomplete. It doesn't start in the cell. That's where prison officials say Brown, already in restraints, started things by head-butting a corrections officer. Brown says the officer, unprovoked, attacked him. Prison records show Brown has a history of facing disciplinary charges for assaulting staff at several prisons. At Lewisburg, officials began the process of charging him with felony assault. But after Brown's lawyer got these tapes, the charges against him were never filed. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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