Inmates’ lawyers, staffers, and more than 40 current and former inmates at the Lewisburg, Pa., Federal Penitentiary tell NPR and the Marshall Project that restraints are used as punishment, often for prisoners who refuse their cell assignments. Prison officials say they try to match compatible cellmates, but ultimately inmates have no control over who shares their cell, even if guards place them with someone who has a violent history, is from a rival gang, or is suffering from a severe mental illness. If they try to refuse a cellmate out of fear, inmates are locked into metal “ambulatory restraints” for hours or days until they relent.
Seven prisoners said that they were threatened with or subjected to a punishment more painful than ambulatory restraints, a form of punishment that at other prisons is used as a short-term last resort for uncontrollable inmates. It is known as “four-pointing,” having each limb cuffed to a corner of a concrete slab or bed frame. The cells were originally built for just one person. Officials doubled up the “Special Management Unit” inmates to teach them to “successfully coexist.” It helped alleviate overcrowding; high-security federal prisons are overstuffed by more than 50 percent. Prisoners in the unit hare excessively tight cells; between the bunks, sink, toilet, desk and the roommate, there is barely room to stand. Inmates get a brief reprieve from the closetlike conditions every week for medical care, three showers, and five hours in a “recreation cage.” Double-cell solitary is a common practice in federal prisons, where more than 80 percent of the nearly 11,000 inmates in restricted housing have a cellmate.