Bureau of Prisons

Imagine spending 23 hours a day in a six foot by 10 foot cell with another person the whole time. That's what life is like in a Special Management Unit, a federal prison program intended for gang leaders and other violent inmates.

The federal Bureau of Prisons announced today that it has started limiting the amount of time inmates can be kept in SMUs. The agency now requires mental health screenings before placing inmates into the program. Under the new policy, which went into effect earlier this month, no inmate will spend more than two years in an SMU unit and most inmates will complete the program in one year.

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But advocates say that even with the new regulations, the SMUs are inhumane. "It's a step in the right direction," said Dave Sprout, a paralegal with the Lewisburg Prison Project, a nonprofit prisoners' rights group in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. The high-security Lewisburg penitentiary is the site of the largest SMU in the country, with more than 1,000 inmates in the program. It's "the worst place in the federal prison system," according to Sprout, who regularly corresponds with inmates in Lewisburg and has visited the facility.

Constructed in the 1930s, Lewisburg was a model of prison reform. Inmates lived in a building designed to look like a college campus, and participated in programs like a prison newspaper and a farm where they grew their own crops. But over the years, the facility got more and more restrictive. Starting in 2009, most of the prison was transformed into an SMU. It's billed by the Bureau of Prisons as a rehabilitation program, a way to make the worst of the worst inmates—gang leaders and inmates with extreme disciplinary records—more manageable. Among prisoners around the country, however, it's a source of fear.

Inmates eat and sleep in their tiny cells with only one hour of recreation a day. Fights and violence between cellmates are common; there have been multiple inmate deaths reported at the facility. Because the prison is so old, the cells are poorly ventilated and blisteringly hot during the summer, Sprout said. Some inmates lie on the concrete floor to stay cool.

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One inmate, Sebastian Richardson, said in a lawsuit filed in 2011 that he was assigned to be a roommate with another prisoner—nicknamed "The Prophet"—who had assaulted about 20 people while in prison. When Richardson refused his roommate assignment, he said he was placed in hard restraints for a month. (Five years later, the case is still pending.)

Inmates at the SMU go through several "levels" of decreasing restrictions. Under the old policy, inmates were expected to stay an average of two years in the program, but disciplinary violations resulted in longer stays. Some inmates spent up to five years living in the cells, Sprout said. Now, no inmate will spend more than two years in the program and most will be transferred out after one year.

The new policy also states that only inmates who have more than two years remaining on their sentence can be entered into the program, in part to avoid having inmates released directly from the SMU. In the past, some inmates have been dropped off in downtown Lewisburg after spending months and months in an SMU and without any kind of halfway house or rehabilitation set up, Sprout said.

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While solitary confinement is seen by many mental health experts as torture, the so-called "solitary with a cellmate" setup in SMUs—which is also common in some state prisons—can be even worse. Sprout said some inmates he's spoken with have spent time at the notorious ADX supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, and told him they would rather be in the solitary lockdown there than trapped with another cellmate in the Lewisburg SMU. “We’re not made to be kept like that as human beings,” Sprout said.

Karen Morin, a Bucknell University professor who has studied the Lewisburg prison, said the facility's transformation from an institution that treated inmates like people to one that locked them in cells 23 hours a day mirrored a broader shift among our country's system of incarceration, with the SMU serving as a worst extreme. "If someone weren't mentally ill or violent before being placed in an SMU, they would become so after spending a few months inside," she said.

A spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons said he could not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday afternoon. "The SMU program is one of the tools available to staff to ensure a safe and orderly environment at all institutions and to address unique security and management concerns," the BOP said in a press release.

This post has been updated with a statement from the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.