Prisoner abuse remains pervasive around the country

Jacob Feuerstein, Opinions Co-Editor

The pounding of the fists of inmates at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn could be heard echoing through the streets of the South Slope neighborhood, east of Prospect Park. MDC is a federal jail whose orange window covers and utilitarian architecture stick out like a sore thumb among the other buildings in the area. The prison’s electrical system suffered a fire on Jan. 27, forcing it to run off of the emergency backup system that provided dim light in the hallways, but, according to inmate reports, turned off access to hot water and heating. It was a nightmare for the more than 1,600 inmates who were locked in their cells in two-degree weather without light or heat. Calls from the jail to the Federal Defenders Office began to increase in the hours and days following the fire, as prisoners became desperate to get help, eventually resorting to using anything they had access to – including towels, blankets, and extra socks – to stay warm.


The conditions at MDC are disgraceful, disgusting, and altogether unsurprising. This is just another example of the violation of basic human rights faced by inmates at federal and state prisons across the country on a daily basis. Prisoners are consistently treated like second-class citizens in the United States, no matter their crime.


Of the 180,000 federal prisoners in the United States, 1,400 of them are located just a 15-minute drive away from the University at the United States Penitentiary, Lewisburg (USP-Lewisburg). In 2016, reports by NPR and other news agencies alleged excessive use of force and insufferable conditions within the walls of the prison. One inmate even detailed a story of being stripped, placed in paper clothes, and then restrained with hand and ankle cuffs that cut into his wrists and Achilles tendon, while another chain was put high across his chest and used to force his arms into an awkward position that made it difficult to breathe. He was then placed in a cell where the window was left open – despite the fact that it was winter – and forced to sleep on the ground because he was unable to reach the top bunk in the cell due to his restraints. This was all because he refused to room with another prisoner known for fighting his cellmates.


The horror stories do not end there, as over 40 current and former inmates have made or confirmed claims that restraints (including the one mentioned above) are used as punishment for prisoners who refuse their cell assignments. As recently as December 2018, a former inmate at USP-Lewisburg won over half million dollars in a settlement from the penitentiary, alleging excessive use of force leading to the loss of an eye. It is hard to imagine that less than 15 miles from campus, prisoners, under threat of force, are being harmed and coerced to cooperate with guards using medieval torture methods. The reality of the situation demands that we must hold those in charge accountable for the actions taken in the prison.


As of June last year, the Bureau of Prisons, a division of the Justice Department, declared that it will move the special management unit (SMU) in USP-Lewisburg to another maximum security prison in Thomson, Ill. The prisoners who make up the SMU population are locked in their cells  23 hours a day and make up a large number of those complaining of excessive force and punishment by physical restraint. Now, more than ever, it is important to hold the federal government responsible for its treatment of prisoners. As it has the opportunity to get a fresh start at Thomson, we must not let up the pressure to respect the human rights guaranteed to prisoners in the Constitution.


One such group of individuals committed to holding the administrators of USP-Lewisburg and the Thomson Correctional Center responsible is the Lewisburg Prison Project (LPP), a prisoner’s rights organization dedicated to assisting inmates with the conditions of their confinement. By providing current prisoners with access to legal bulletins and information regarding the rights afforded to them, the members of the LPP are doing the hard work of aiding those who the federal government is responsible for protecting. The torturing of prisoners in USP-Lewisburg and around the country must end, as it is a shameful and morally reprehensible activity based in traditions of a “Big House” mentality that we should have abandoned decades ago.

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