New Fayette prison houses 'worst of the worst' (2024)

Deep within the state's newest prison in Fayette County, 40 small cells are home to the worst, most incorrigible inmates confined in Pennsylvania's corrections system.

This special Long-Term Segregation Unit is a prison within a prison for inmates who've proven they are so dangerous or resistant to discipline that they can't be housed anywhere else within a state system that oversees 40,000 convicts.

Corrections officials refer to these inmates as the "worst of the worst."

"They're the idiots," said SCI-Fayette spokesman Carol Scire. "It's all based on their behavior since they got to the Department of Corrections."

SCI-Fayette opened in rural Luzerne Township last October and the first LTSU inmates arrived in January. When fully operational, the prison that now houses 680 inmates will accommodate up to 2,034 prisoners.

The facility will replace the aging prison on Pittsburgh's North Side. That prison, which previously housed the state's lone LTSU units, is set to close next January.

Focus on isolation

It is the LTSU that sets SCI-Fayette apart from the state's 27 other prisons.

LTSU inmates remain in their austere cells for all but five hours a week when they exercise alone in a caged area referred to as the "dog kennel" because it resembles a run used for dogs. Meals are delivered to their cells through "pie holes." They shower just three times a week and can have visits with relatives once a month. Sick inmates are treated in the unit's infirmary.

It is often a last stop for inmates with the most egregious disciplinary records. There is no predetermined length of stay and confinement is not directly related to the crime that brought them behind bars.

Questions have surfaced about the unit's use.

William DiMascio, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, said the unit's typical inmates usually enter prison and then find themselves in a downward spiral by adopting a tough attitude or refusing to submit to authority.

"They can't follow rules and regulations and prison is all about rules and regulations," he said. "In many cases, they're denied just about everything. The concept of segregation is supposed to be working toward improving themselves so they can get access to more amenities.

"When you're in a stripped-down cell 23 hours a day with just the walls to look at and a steel bed to sleep on, getting a newspaper is a big deal, getting a radio is a big deal. Good conduct allows inmates to work their way out of restrictive segregation. Some of the guys in these units will throw feces on guards, throw urine. You've got constant antagonism."

Pittsburgh attorney Jere Krakoff, who has had clients housed in LTSU, represented four inmates when the unit was located at SCI-Pittsburgh. He argued in a class action lawsuit that long-term isolation caused them to suffer mental anguish, weight loss, sensory deprivation, depression, fatigue, insomnia and loss of all privileges.

In their lawsuit, the inmates complained that daily life is one of constant noise and the pervasive smell of feces and urine. For example, Krakoff said, inmates will smear feces over their bodies and sing all night.

At the newly opened prison, the LTSU is housed in "L Block," where each cell has a small window overlooking administrative offices in a nearby building. Like all other general population units there, guards are stationed between two cell blocks.

Visitors are not permitted into the LTSU cell block, where security is tight with cameras stationed throughout the 40-cell unit. When a visitor walks outside or through corridors of that section of the prison, LTSU inmates bang on their windows.

Cells are small, with only a bed, sink and table. Standard items, such as electrical outlets, have been removed from cells in the program's most severe levels. Inmates are rotated to different cells about every 30 days.

"We don't want them to get too comfortable," Scire said.

James Smith, director of volunteer services for the Pennsylvania Prison Society, had visited the LTSU at SCI-Pittsburgh before it was moved. He likened it to a "medieval hospital for the insane."

"I was impressed with the bleakness and uneasiness being in that cell block because of the noise," Smith said. "You can only imagine what happens to their minds."

Pennsylvania has three types of isolation units.

In addition to the LTSU, there are Special Maintenance Units at the prisons in Greene and Dauphin counties and each prison also has a Restrictive Housing Unit. These levels of solitary confinement have a defined length of stay.

More prevalent

Segregation of inmates is not a unique concept. Some sort of solitary confinement system has been in place since the state's first prison opened in 1829.

Restrictive units became more prevalent as years passed, and in the early 1990s, the Department of Corrections set up 130 Special Maintenance Units -- then considered to be a last stop for incorrigible inmates. SMU inmates lose some privileges and are forced to undergo counseling.

Department of Corrections Secretary Jeff Beard said it soon became evident that the SMU just wasn't a big enough deterrent.

"As we got into the later 1990s we found we had a group of inmates who just seemed to be incorrigible. Very often these people were assaultive to staff. We had set up limits on the SMU, two years, so we needed to find something else to do with these people," Beard said.

Based on the program run at the Pelican Bay state prison in California, Pennsylvania officials drew up the idea for its LTSU. Unlike Pelican Bay, which is an entire prison for California's "worst of the worst," Pennsylvania set up just a handful of cells.

"We didn't want to have something like Pelican Bay because it became the end of the line. We wanted to protect our staff better but try to restore inmates to a higher level of functioning," said Beard, adding that even with the most punitive form of punishment, the goal is still to return inmates to general population.

Some inmates in the LTSU were there when the program started in 2000, according to prison officials who declined to identify inmates in the unit.

"The program is designed to last up to 36 months, but we have had inmates who have been in it less and inmates who've been in it longer," Scire said.

Lorna Rhodes, an anthropologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, recently published a book that explores the use of total confinement cells. Rhodes said these isolation units potentially can cause more harm to an inmate's mental health.

"They do get out and sometimes they get out right to the streets. Sometimes they are more violent than when they get in," Rhodes said.

In her book, "Total Confinement," Rhodes estimated there are more than 45,000 cells in as many as 60 different facilities throughout the country akin to Pennsylvania's LTSU.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that even though conditions in these units are bleak and harsh, they are not unconstitutional. The court ruled that the Constitution "does not mandate comfortable prisons."

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania's Commonwealth Court last week threw out a lawsuit filed by an inmate at Fayette's LTSU.

Lamont Pugh, 33, is serving a 13 1/2- to 35-year sentence for a Philadelphia murder. Pugh, an inmate since June 20, 1990, contended that his due process and equal protection rights were violated by the prison system's misconduct rules -- the same rules that dictate who gets placed in the LTSU. He claimed his confinement in the LTSU was cruel and unusual punishment.

Mental illness

Krakoff, who has represented some of Pennsylvania's most dangerous inmates who have been isolated for decades, said if inmates in LTSU weren't mentally ill before they arrived, some certainly develop symptoms of mental illness after being isolated for a long period.

"It raises the question of mentally ill inmates in this unit whose conditions are made worse by long-term isolation," he said. "I've received a number of disturbing allegations that wouldn't surprise me that there are mentally ill inmates in the LTSU."

A recent study in New York found that one of every four inmates in punitive segregation is mentally ill. Human Rights Watch believes 25 percent of all prison inmates in the United States are mentally ill. And DiMascio estimates that 16 percent of all Pennsylvania inmates suffer from mental illness.

The legal justification to isolate inmates for years stems from a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case in the aftermath of a riot at the state prison in Huntingdon County. The court ruled that prison officials have "broad administrative discretionary authority" and inmates "retain only a narrow range of protected liberty interests."

Corrections officials use "administrative custody" as a catchall to protect inmates and staff from dangerous prisoners by housing inmates for years under that category.

For example, inmate Daniel Delker has spent 30 years in administrative custody for killing a prison captain at SCI-Pittsburgh during a bloody escape attempt in the 1970s. Delker beat Walter Peterson to death after the inmates blocked entrance to the unit.

Krakoff has unsuccessfully sued to have Delker, who is in SCI-Houtzdale, in Clearfield County, returned from an RHU to the general prison population.

Angus Love, director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project in Philadelphia, said some inmates will die in segregation.

Inmate Joseph "JoJo" Bowen, of Philadelphia, killed the warden and deputy warden at Holmesburg Prison during an escape attempt in 1973. He is held in an SMU at SCI-Coal Township, Northumberland County.

"He's probably the most despicable inmate in the system," Love said. "He's in lockdown forever."

Rich Cholodofsky can be reached at rcholodofsky@tribweb.com or 724-830-6293. Richard Gazarik can be reached at rgazarik@tribweb.com or 724-830-6292.

New Fayette prison houses 'worst of the worst' (2024)

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