On Feb. 3, 2011, corrections officers at the Lewisburg federal penitentiary in central Pennsylvania arrived outside Sebastian Richardson's cell door. With them was a man looking agitated, rocking back and forth and staring down at Richardson, who at 4 feet, 11 inches was nicknamed "Bam Bam."
The man, officers told Richardson, was his new cellmate. The two would spend nearly 24 hours a day celled together in a concrete room smaller than a parking space.
Richardson, 51, didn't know his new cellmate's name; only that he went by the nickname "The Prophet." Lenelle Gray, a former Lewisburg inmate, said The Prophet had a habit of screaming songs or shouting the spelling of words for hours, as though competing in his own private spelling bee. There were also rumors that he had assaulted more than 20 previous cellmates.
"Every cellie he get, he always end up fighting. He was just crazy," Gray said in an interview.
"He's Lewisburg's weapon," former Lewisburg inmate Deangelo Moore said of The Prophet. "If he like you, he like you. But if he don't, he's your worst enemy."
So when officers told Richardson to cuff up — put his hands through the food slot to get handcuffed — and step aside to make room for his new cellmate, he refused.
The details of Richardson's story are laid out in a lawsuit he filed against the Bureau of Prisons and the agency's response to that lawsuit — and are reinforced by Richardson's letters from prison and interviews with former inmates.
Richardson says the guards took The Prophet away and then returned 30 minutes later with reinforcements. They moved him to a laundry area to be stripped, searched and put in paper clothes. Richardson yelped in pain as they then placed him in hand and ankle cuffs, clicking them tighter until they cut into his wrists and Achilles tendon. A chain, locked high on his chest in a practice known among staff as "T-Rexing," forced his arms into an awkwardly high bend and made it hard to breathe. Officers then walked him, haltingly, to a cell where another man was being held in identical shackles.
According to inmates' lawyers, Lewisburg staffers and more than 40 current and former inmates — who made similar claims in lawsuits, court testimonies, government audits or letters and interviews with The Marshall Project and NPR — restraints are used as punishment at Lewisburg, 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, as Richardson said he did, they are locked into metal "ambulatory restraints" for hours or days until they relent, NPR and The Marshall Project found.
Seven prisoners said that they were threatened with or subjected to a punishment far 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" and consists of having each limb cuffed to a corner of a concrete slab or bed frame.
Richardson said in the lawsuit that he was freezing in the new cell and that the guards left the window open when they locked him in. He said in the lawsuit that his paper uniform was no match for the Pennsylvania winter air. It was soaked with urine. In restraints, he wasn't able to pull his pants down to use the toilet.
Richardson's cuffs also made the top bunk an impossible reach. So when the other prisoner would take the bottom bed, Richardson did the only thing he could: He would curl up on the concrete floor.
Guards came every two hours to check on him. Richardson said in his lawsuit they ignored his complaints: his swelling hands, his soiled clothes, his cut ankles. Instead they reiterated his options — be locked in a tiny cell with a violent man or cope with the restraints.
According to Richardson's lawsuit, he remained cuffed for 28 days. The Bureau of Prisons confirmed this detail.
Teaching inmates to "successfully coexist"
The Special Management Unit where Richardson was housed was created in 2009 for "dangerously violent, confrontational, defiant, antagonistic inmates," according to the Bureau of Prisons. Richardson, serving a 35-year sentence for drug trafficking, was transferred there in March 2010 for assaulting a corrections officer. His attorney said Richardson was intervening in a fight between a guard and another inmate.
The aim of the SMU is to increase safety at other federal prisons by culling their most problematic inmates and putting them through a three-step rehabilitation program. Prisoners are assigned a series of workbooks and journal entries to be completed in-cell on topics like "The Con Game," the "criminal lifestyle" and anger management. Bureau of Prisons lectures play over inmates' radios, instructing them on everything from diversity to parenting.
The cells were originally built for just one person, but officials doubled up the SMU inmates to teach them to "successfully coexist," according to the prisoner handbook. It also helped alleviate overcrowding — data from the Bureau of Prisons show high-security federal prisons are overstuffed by more than 50 percent.
As a result, prisoners in the SMU share excessively tight cells; between the bunks, sink, toilet, desk and the roommate, there is barely room to stand. "When I use the toilet, his feet are on my knees," said Moore, the former Lewisburg inmate. 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. But Lewisburg has the added danger of housing some of the bureau's most volatile prisoners. "I've gone to as many as three, four cell fights in a day, a lot more than you would at any other institution," said a current SMU corrections officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job.
Guards in SWAT gear are often seen running down the tier with pepper balls and handcuffs to break up brawling cellmates, including the prisoner who was found kicking a roommate lying in the fetal position, the prisoner who tore off half of his cellmate's ear, and the inmate who slashed his cellmate with a razor blade.
According to federal incident report records obtained by The Marshall Project and NPR, officers responded to 228 in-cell fights and assaults with restraints or pepper spray in 2014 and 2015. At least 19 inmates were treated for injuries such as a collapsed lung, a broken rib, multiple stab wounds and head injuries.
Since the SMU opened, there have been more than 800 recorded inmate-on-inmate assaults — a rate six times higher than all federal prisons.
And in that time, at least four inmates have been killed by their cellmates.
In August, the Bureau of Prisons announced changes to the SMU in response to recommendations made by the Department of Justice. The new policy limited the length of the rehabilitation program to 12 months and ensured that prisoners who failed to advance on schedule cannot be held in the SMU for longer than two years. Prisoners are also supposed to receive a more thorough mental health screening before and during their time in the unit.
But the conditions that inmates are held in, and the practice of using restraints against them, remain unchanged.
At other facilities, if an inmate objects to his cellmate out of concern for his safety, he may be given a disciplinary notice for disobeying orders, be held in a cell by himself while officers investigate his complaints or be ignored altogether. According to Bureau of Prisons policy, restraints of any kind are meant to be used briefly and as a last alternative.
"The inmate who refuses to cell with someone ordinarily receives an incident report for 'Refusing A Program Assignment,' which is a moderate severity infraction," Jack T. Donson, a former Bureau of Prisons official and current correctional consultant, wrote in an email to The Marshall Project and NPR. "Restraints should not be applied simply because they refuse a cellmate."
The procedures in the SMU leave inmates with few, difficult options: They can verbally refuse their cellmate and risk being restrained. Or they can live with someone they fear, risking attack. Some resort to throwing the first punch, in plain view of guards, knowing that the officers will have to separate them — a strategy that often lands them in restraints, too. Incident reports show that at least 48 men attacked their cellmate directly in front of officers in 2014 and 2015.
"I've been practicing for almost 30 years, and my clients tell me Lewisburg is the worst place they've ever been," said assistant federal public defender D. Toni Byrd, who has represented several Lewisburg defendants and sits on the board of the Lewisburg Prison Project, a prisoners' rights nonprofit. "If you did to your dog what they do to men here, you would be arrested."
In one inmate's lawsuit, the Bureau of Prisons has denied that Lewisburg staff place inmates in restraints as punishment.
NPR and The Marshall Project reached out to officials at Lewisburg to comment for this story, and they referred us to Bureau of Prisons officials, who declined multiple interview requests.
In response to detailed questions about The Marshall Project and NPR's findings, bureau spokesman Justin Long said he could not comment on pending lawsuits.
"The Bureau ensures inmates in its custody are treated fairly and with dignity," Long wrote in an email. "Allegations of mistreatment are thoroughly investigated and appropriate action is taken if such allegations are proven true." Long noted that the SMUs are "non-punitive" units meant for inmates with a history of violence.
In February 2014, former Lewisburg inmate Royce Brown, who was sentenced to 20 years on drug and gun possession charges, said he had been housed with a "gunner" — someone who masturbates when a woman walks down the tier. During the 18 days they lived together, tension and frustration mounted.
"We were stuck looking at each other. ... It was torture just being in the cell with him," Brown said.
Brown said that one morning, his cellmate told him, "We can't live in the cell together no more. I'm gonna make 'em gas us." Brown asked to be moved, but guards ignored his requests. Brown knew the protocol: If he attacked his cellmate in front of corrections officers, they would be forced to remove him. "I [hit] him a few times and I put him on the ground," Brown said in an interview with NPR and The Marshall Project. "Now they have to separate us."
Surveillance footage shows more than 30 officers ran down the tier as some shot pepper spray and pepper balls — small pellets that explode on contact — into Brown's cell to break up the fight. Brown stuck his hands out of the slot to be cuffed and was removed by guards wearing gas masks and blue and black sweatshirts that read "The Big House."
"I tried to deal with this the right way," Brown told an officer as staff bound his limbs, tears and mucus dripping from his face. "Lieutenant, I tried to get you to talk to me."
As guards chained his hands, ankles and chest, Brown yelled out in pain. "Goddamn these are tight. I can't even breathe."
Brown remained restrained for more than 24 hours after hitting his cellmate, according to prison records, one of several times he was shackled at Lewisburg. A year and a half after coming home, he still has scars on his wrists and stomach.
"The most agonizing experience of my life"
The Lewisburg Prison Project, which has a two-person staff, received 962 letters from Lewisburg prisoners in 2015 and makes regular visits to the penitentiary. The workers often hear the same complaint.
"You are placed in a cell with shackles so tight, I've seen probably 30 guys at Lewisburg months later who have open wounds," said Dave Sprout, a paralegal at the project who is in charge of inmate visits and correspondence. "Many guys can't eat, they can't use the bathroom."
At least two men have filed lawsuits alleging that they were forced to drink from the toilet when they could not operate the sink in their restraints. Another Lewisburg inmate filed a lawsuit claiming that the ambulatory restraints were so tight he passed out and still suffers from nerve damage in his hands. He was restrained, he said, for trying to avoid a dangerous cell assignment.
A 2014 independent audit of solitary confinement in federal prisons, commissioned by the Bureau of Prisons, noted that a "significant percentage" of Lewisburg inmates they interviewed complained about the overuse and harsh application of restraints. "The high number of reported incidents ... suggests the need for further investigation," auditors wrote. In their response, Bureau of Prisons officials did not comment on that aspect of the audit.
Then in November 2015, the D.C. Corrections Information Council, a city government agency that inspects facilities where Washington, D.C., prisoners are housed (the District has no prisons of its own), concluded that the SMU was in violation of federal use-of-force policies. Seventeen D.C. inmates said officers abused restraints, with several recounting how they had been held for days at a time in chains that caused nerve damage in their hands and feet.
One prisoner showed investigators his scars and said his three days in restraints was "the most agonizing experience of my life."
Another told investigators that he was held in restraints for refusing a cellmate and was "forced to defecate and urinate in his pants because the restraints were so tight he could not remove [the pants]."
The Bureau of Prisons said in a statement that all of the allegations were investigated, and none were substantiated.
But some staffers don't deny that the prison relies on restraints. "If you allow inmates to dictate the terms under which they get a cellie, then you're not in control," the Lewisburg guard said.
"[Officers] don't think twice about putting someone in restraints if they're insubordinate or if they're not being compliant with the rules," said Marc Marchioli, who worked as a physician assistant at Lewisburg from October 2012 to May 2014. "You have to remember these guys are dangerous people. If they don't cuff up, it's considered a direct threat."
Marchioli said that officers applied restraints correctly — but that inmates caused their own injuries when they tried to move. "The more they wiggle, the more damage they end up doing."
A deadly year
Last year was a particularly violent one at Lewisburg. In August 2015, Jimmy Barker, serving a 13-year sentence for fraud, died after a fight with his cellmate. Bureau of Prisons documents obtained by The Marshall Project and NPR show that Barker had been in a psychiatric hospital three times and attempted suicide twice, but that a Lewisburg psychologist found no evidence of serious mental illness before placing him in a double cell with another inmate.
Then in October, Gerardo Arche-Felix was killed by his cellmate.
Arche-Felix, 57, was serving a five-year sentence for attempted entry after deportation and had been at Lewisburg since April 2014. He had tried to cross the border in 2012 to rejoin his family in Utah after being sent to Mexico two years earlier. He was also a diagnosed schizophrenic and said he had not been given his medication for much of his time in Lewisburg. Prison documents show that psychology staff in the SMU repeatedly found Arche-Felix to have "no significant mental health issues," though he had previously been under an involuntary treatment order in a Utah state prison and was forced to take antipsychotic drugs. Without medication, Arche-Felix could be erratic, agitated and paranoid.
"It's been more than a month I don't take my meds," he wrote in a letter to his daughter, Jana Oman, in September 2014. "I need my meds or I'll lose my mind."
Oman told NPR and The Marshall Project: "It was hell. You could hear it in his voice every time he spoke on the phone or read a letter. Little by little, he was just falling apart."
Because of his mental health problems and slight, 5-foot-8-inch frame, Arche-Felix was especially vulnerable to attacks from other prisoners. "My cellmate went crazy on me and started to beat me up while I was asleep. He is younger and taller and stronger than me," he wrote in November 2014.
He often ended up in restraints, according to his family, for his erratic behavior. "He told my aunt that he would be handcuffed on his ankles and around his wrists and they would be chained together," Oman said. "He'd be like that for days."
Arche-Felix's sister, Kiana Arche, said her brother grew more afraid the longer he spent in the SMU. At Lewisburg, his options were to accept the cellmates he desperately feared or end up shackled in a cell. One day he called his sister and told her, " 'Call this nurse and please tell her they need to move me from here,' " she recounted. " 'This not right. I'm so scared. I'm not supposed to be here.' "
Oman received a call the morning of Oct. 14, 2015, from the prison chaplain, who told her that her father was dead. Days later, she read in the newspaper that his death was a suspected homicide. Prosecutors have since confirmed they are investigating his cellmate for murder. On Arche-Felix's death certificate, his cause of death reads "strangulation by ligature."
"Anywhere is a better place to be"
After seven days in restraints, Richardson, the inmate who had refused to be celled with The Prophet, remained determined that he would not be put in the same small cell with any violent prisoners. So officers tried something else.
A team of guards took Richardson to a room, painted floor to ceiling in pink, a shade designed to soothe aggressive behavior. In the center of the room was a bed frame topped with a thin pad. As is protocol, guards laid Richardson on the bed and bound each limb to one of its corners. Because he was so short, the restraints were even more painful as his arms and legs had to stretch farther to reach each post. Officers then draped a paper blanket over him before leaving the room and locking the door. He was left to stay in the pink room, splayed and immobile.
Richardson screamed out in pain as he was being chained down, according to the documents. He said one officer again opened the window before leaving the room, as other prisoners have accused guards of doing. His requests for water and a bathroom break were ignored, leaving him shivering in his soiled paper uniform.
The Bureau of Prisons confirmed that Richardson was four-pointed but denied his description of the conditions. It said he was placed in the more severe restraints for threatening to assault staff.
Richardson was pinned down for a total of eight hours. He was then put back into ambulatory restraints for three more weeks. In court documents, Richardson said he was uncuffed only once, to take a shower.
"They placed the restraints on me so tight ... my hands had puffed up. Each finger looked like the Valasic [sic] pickles ... not the smaller ones, the medium size," he later wrote to Sprout of the Lewisburg Prison Project about restraints at Lewisburg. "My wrists were so swollen the cuffs were stuck in them."
On March 2, 2011, almost a month after Richardson had been cuffed, he agreed to live with any cellmate they gave him, his attorney said.
At one point, according to his lawsuit, he was housed with someone he said had not been given his psychiatric medication. The inmate stayed up all night talking to himself. After that cellmate was moved, officers tried to get Richardson to live with someone he said had stabbed him while in the rec yard of another facility. Richardson refused and ended up in restraints again. This time, court documents and letters written by Richardson said, he was held in shackles for 16 days, one of which was spent four-pointed.
Richardson said this cycle continued several more times during his 2 1/2 years in the SMU.
"It is my desire to get through this violating, unstable, dangerous environment, but not at the cost of jeopardizing my safety and life," Richardson wrote in a letter to Sprout. "[They] said they will keep putting me in 4-points until I go where they put me."
In December 2011, the Lewisburg Prison Project and the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, a legal aid organization, filed a federal lawsuit over the prison's use of restraints, with Richardson as the lead plaintiff. The case is ongoing.
In response to the suit, Bureau of Prisons officials denied that the Lewisburg staff is placing inmates in restraints as punishment. The bureau also objected to the claim that restraints are applied in a way that injures or prevents prisoners from eating, drinking or using the toilet. "Inmates in ambulatory restraints are able to take care of basic human needs without staff intervention," they wrote.
A kind of relief came to Richardson in September 2012, when he was transferred out of Lewisburg to the supermax prison in Florence, Colo., the highest-security prison in the country. There, inmates are locked down in a single cell for almost 24 hours a day.
Though Florence has been called "America's Toughest Prison," for many in Lewisburg's SMU, it's seen as an escape. At Florence, they can live alone, free from the constant threat of violence.
As Richardson wrote in a letter to Sprout, "anywhere is a better place to be."
After this story published, the Bureau of Prisons sent a response to this investigation. Read the complete response here.