Federal Prisoners Sue Over Unconstitutional Isolation Practices

HARRISBURG, PA - The DC Prisoners’ Project of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs filed a class action lawsuit today alleging that the Federal Bureau of Prisons has systematically mistreated seriously mentally ill prisoners at the United States Penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, by denying them access to the most basic mental health care in violation of the United States Constitution. Three prisoners filed the case on behalf of all mentally ill prisoners at the facility.

The lawsuit, styled McCreary v. The Federal Bureau of Prisons, seeks to compel the Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”) to comply with its own existing policies and rules regarding the placement and treatment of men suffering from mental illness. It also seeks to define a minimum level of care and mental health treatment for those in custody that is sufficient to satisfy the prohibitions of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution against cruel and unusual punishment.

The defendants are the BOP and several of its top officials with responsibility for the operation of the prison. According to papers filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, men with serious mental illness at USP Lewisburg are locked in isolation for 23 or more hours per day, and many are “double-celled” with other mentally ill men in cells so small that two people cannot stand in them at the same time.

“The isolation of prisoners with mental illness and the denial of necessary treatment is cruel, inhumane and serves no legitimate security purpose,” said Jonathan Smith, Executive Director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee. “Across the nation, prison officials are recognizing the severe harm created by these types of isolation practices and the costs to the system and public safety. It is long past time for the Bureau of Prisons to reform its practices.”

Men with lifetime histories of schizophrenia, paranoia, bipolar disorder, depression, and other serious mental conditions often receive no treatment at all. Treatments and medications administered at other BOP institutions are discontinued without explanation once they arrive at USP Lewisburg.

Counselors interact with mentally ill prisoners for no more than a minute or two a week, and most often only through cell doors and in the presence of other inmates. Some prisoners have had medication denied to them as punishment. Instead of treatment, the men receive only a small packet of word games, coloring pages copied from the internet, and Sudoku puzzles.

The BOP and mental health experts have known for decades that extended confinement in isolation is likely to exacerbate all types of mental illness, increasing the risk of violence against prison staff and other inmates, and reducing the likelihood that these men will ever be able successfully to re-enter society at the end of their sentences.

The three individual plaintiffs in the case have each been previously diagnosed with serious mental health conditions, including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, major depressive disorder, and antisocial personality disorder. Despite these prior diagnoses, none of these individuals is currently receiving adequate treatment or any medication for his mental illness. Mr. McCreary has attempted suicide twice in the last three months. A year ago, the BOP designated him to a facility intended for men suffering from mental illness, yet he remains at USP Lewisburg in a cell protected at its entrance by two doors, completely isolated from human contact.

USP Lewisburg, referred to as the “Big House,” was built in 1932 and currently houses approximately 1,089 men. In 2009, USP Lewisburg was designated a “Special Management Unit,” or “SMU,” for the purpose of housing some of the most difficult prisoners in the federal system. More than half of the prisoners at USP Lewisburg are housed in a high security facility—most of these individuals are in the SMU program. Conditions of confinement in the SMU are more restrictive than in a general population prison environment of a high security prison. SMU inmates spend at least 23 hours per day in cells that are, on average, only eight feet by eleven feet in size.

The complaint alleges that despite the BOP’s own written policies excluding men suffering from serious mental illness from the SMU program because of its severe conditions, the BOP frequently assigns these men to the SMU, where they are denied constitutionally adequate treatment and services.

Latham & Watkins LLP serves as co-counsel with the DC Prisoners’ Project. Latham partner Kevin Metz said, “As we alleged in the complaint, the treatment of men suffering from mental illness at USP Lewisburg violates the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, with often devastating consequences. By this lawsuit, we seek to force the BOP to reform its practices and provide appropriate diagnosis and care for men with mental illness.”

The consequences of the BOP’s deliberate indifference to the proper diagnosis and treatment of men with serious mental illness are shocking. The conditions of confinement at USP Lewisburg and the BOP’s failure to properly diagnose and treat mental illness have worsened the mental health status of inmates who arrive at USP Lewisburg with mental illness, and have caused other individuals to develop mental illnesses while at the facility. The toll on SMU inmates is astounding and readily apparent. Prisoners at USP Lewisburg bang on the walls of their cells, and at times refuse to leave their cells for months, even for a shower. Others mutilate their bodies with whatever objects they can obtain or carry on delusional conversations with voices they hear in their heads, oblivious to reality and to the danger that such behavior poses to themselves and others. Inmate-on-inmate violence is prevalent and has been fatal in some instances. Suicide attempts are common; many have been successful.

While some SMU inmates are serving life sentences, most will be released from prison and re-enter society. Without adequate mental health care, the men at USP Lewisburg with serious mental illness are ultimately released without the skills or treatment necessary to enable them to successfully re-enter society.

The Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project has served as local counsel in this case, as well as co-counsel with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee on other cases involving this facility.


Lawsuit: Mentally ill inmates are being mistreated - The Daily Item (June 12, 2017)

Where Crossword Puzzles Count as Counseling  - The Marshall Project (June 12, 2017)

Lawsuit Says Lewisburg Prison Counsels Prisoners With Crossword Puzzles - NPR (June 15, 2017)


Gregg A. Kelley
Director of Development & Communications
Washington Lawyers’ Committee
(202) 319-1000 x155

Kevin Metz
Latham & Watkins
Kevin.Metz@lw.com(202) 637-2200

Copyright © 2008-2018 Washington Lawyers' Committee