Damage to South Carolina Prisons Shifts Prisoners to Lewisburg, Pennsylvania
Speaking on condition of anonymity to spare loved ones retaliation from the BOP, the family members were highly critical of the decision, arguing that it put prisoners at risk. Heightening their anxiety was the ever-present risk of COVID-19, which has made all prisoner transfers problematic, and even before the storm, the virus had forced the federal prison system to end all in-person visits. Inquiries to the BOP by family members as to their family member’s whereabouts went unacknowledged and unanswered.
BOP staff was also concerned about the abrupt transfer to a prison that was already short on staff. Union national president Shane Fausey of Employees Council 33 said in April that Lewisburg will have a “serious problem” with staffing, and expressed concern that the movement of almost 100 prisoners on short notice will spark a COVID-19 outbreak that could overwhelm the areas small hospitals. His concerns were shared by Andy Kline, Local 148 president, who said, “I’m concerned about the virus.”
Already on edge because of the threat of COVID-19, family members said the BOP has made it impossible to keep in touch with their family members and is now shipping them hundreds of miles away to an uncertain future. One parent of a prisoner, Kaye, pointed out that “These are medium-low inmates,” who were now shipped en-masse to a maximum-security prison with a past history of violent incidents. Another parent from the Chattanooga, Tennessee area said she would still visit her son: “I have calculated the drive from my home to Lewisburg, and it is 711 miles away. Over a 10-hour drive. Will it stop me from visiting him? No ma’am.”
Lewisburg area Congressman Fred Keller, of the 12th Congressional District, also registered his displeasure at the abrupt move of prisoners into his district after the movement of prisoners in New York and Ohio was blamed for outbreaks at their new institutions. “Despite this recent success in stopping inmate movement, (news of Estill inmate transfers) came with little notice and was decided without input from my office or the people of said district,” he said.
“I am extremely concerned that any rapid increase in USP Lewisburg’s inmate population would create challenges for the prison’s staff, and potentially local hospitals. USP Lewisburg has been under a reduced inmate population and staff for several years. Also, our local hospitals are on record expressing concerns about their capacity to handle a COVID-19 outbreak among a large prison population,” Congressman Keller said.
Prisoner families who temporarily lost track of their incarcerated family members were not the only ones who were disrupted by the move. Prisoners who had settled in to their Estill facility, where they were familiar with staff of the low-security prison, were now thrust overnight into a new environment, generally only with the clothes on their back, having hurriedly packed up their personal property and court documents for later shipment from Estill by BOP staff.
At least one prisoner who made the quick journey to Lewisburg said that the BOP failed to hand over most of his purchased clothing and personal toiletries, and his box of irreplaceable court documents that had been left behind. He alleged that the guards at Lewisburg failed to properly open his property in front of him and inventory it in his presence, as required under BOP program statements, and that he was taunted by the guards and told, “that is all of your property, “and to “file a tort claim,” a laborious undertaking for a confined prisoner.
The abrupt transfer of prisoners to a strange facility hundreds of miles from home, in the midst of a pandemic that has caused much of the country to be locked down for months, and the subsequent loss of much of those prisoners valuable documents and many persona items, is yet another indication that to the federal Bureau of Prisons, you are often regarded as merely a number, not a person who is entitled to the same humanitarian considerations and constitutional protections that other individuals often take for granted.