Class Actions Challenge Brutal Practices in Federal Prison

The use of solitary confinement or other forms of isolation has become commonplace across the country. Between 80,000 and 100,000 prisoners in the United States are confined to a cell for 22 or more hours per day, often alone but sometimes with a cellmate. Terms of isolation can last for years, and in many cases, decades. Prisoners are cut off from other human interaction, physical activity, and productive endeavors. This isolation is cruel and harmful to anyone, but especially for prisoners with mental illness.

The Washington Lawyers’ Committee is currently litigating two class actions challenging isolation of prisoners at the federal prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania (Lewisburg). USP Lewisburg operates a “Special Management Unit” for prisoners alleged to have serious disciplinary records. Prisoners are held in solitary confinement, or with a second prisoner in the same cell, for as long as 24 hours per day. They are provided limited out-of-cell time for recreation and personal hygiene, but receive very limited programming opportunities. Even when they are out of their cell, they are alone and have very limited opportunity to interact with other prisoners or non-security staff.

For many years, the Committee has received reports of escalating violence at Lewisburg. In 2011, with the law firm of Dechert LLP and the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project (PILP), we filed Richardson v. Kane. This class action seeks to prohibit the practice of placing prisoners with a known history of hostility towards each other in the same cells and/or recreation cages despite the serious risk of violence. Prisoners are caught in an impossible situation—those who refuse dangerous placements are placed in restraints for hours at a time, often for a day or longer. In some instances, prisoners are strapped to a table with their limbs tied down in a brutal procedure known as four pointing. But if a prisoner does not refuse to be placed in a cell with a prisoner who poses a threat to his safety, violence is likely to occur. There have been at least two prisoner deaths at USP Lewisburg attributable to this practice.

In June 2017, the Committee, along with the law firm of Latham & Watkins, and again with PILP as local counsel, filed McCreary v. BOP. In McCreary, we are challenging the abuse and failure to treat Lewisburg prisoners with mental illness. Among the practices we seek to address are the isolation of prisoners with mental illness, widespread failure to provide behavioral and psychiatric treatment, and the failure to provide meaningful interventions for prisoners who attempt suicide. Many courts have found violations of the Eighth Amendment inherent in long-term solitary confinement of prisoners with mental illness.

Conditions at USP Lewisburg are among the most brutal and inhumane of any prison in the U.S. and the harmful isolation practices at Lewisburg make reentry much more difficult. The District prisoners confined there will be returning to our community, often with little or no transition assistance. This is cruel to the prisoner and places a burden on the District, prisoners’ families, and the community. It is another demonstration of the dysfunction created by federalization of the District’s criminal legal system.

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