The United States Penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pa., is one of the toughest, most violent prisons in America, where inmate-on-inmate assaults are common — and sometimes deadly.
See the full investigation: "Inside Lewisburg Prison: A Choice Between A Violent Cellmate Or Shackles"
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There's a prison in central Pennsylvania known as the big house. Its official name is the United States Penitentiary at Lewisburg, and it is one of the most violent federal prisons in the country, a place where inmate-on-inmate assaults are common and sometimes deadly. These are the findings of NPR's investigation with Christie Thompson of the Marshall Project. That's a news organization that specializes in criminal justice. We should say this story includes graphic descriptions of violence, and we will warn you when we get close to that part. Here's NPR's Joseph Shapiro.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Jana Oman is the daughter of Gerardo Arche. He was an inmate at Lewisburg on October 14 last year.
JANA OMAN: Well, early in the morning, around 6, 6:30 my time, I had missed a call and I got a voicemail. I saw the number came from Pennsylvania and I thought, you know, this isn't good.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BOYD CARNEY: Hi. This is Chaplain Carney from the United States Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa. I was wondering if you could give me a call back at your earliest convenience.
OMAN: And so I called him back, and he said that my father had passed away and he was sorry and he couldn't give me any more information. And that was the end of that conversation.
SHAPIRO: Only by accident, days later, she found out her father had been murdered, strangled by his cellmate, after someone showed her an online story from the newspaper near the Lewisburg prison.
OMAN: I was furious. I was sad. I couldn't believe that The Daily Item gets more information than the family.
SHAPIRO: Oman says she never heard from the prison again. An investigation by NPR and The Marshall Project shows that Lewisburg is one of the most dangerous prisons in America. We got federal data for inmate-on-inmate assaults and found those assaults are six times more common at Lewisburg compared to all federal prisons.
Some of that increase might be expected at Lewisburg. It's a Special Management Unit for 1,200 of the most violent inmates in the federal prison system - gang leaders, men who've assaulted guards or attacked other inmates. But other problems at Lewisburg make violence more likely - a lack of mental health care and the policy of putting dangerous men together in small cells up to 24 hours a day.
DEMETRIUS HILL: Everybody's mad that they're there, and they begin to take out their rage and their anger on each other.
SHAPIRO: Demetrius Hill is a Lewisburg inmate. There, prisoners are put in solitary confinement and then given a cellmate. It's called double-cell solitary confinement.
HILL: So just think in your mind, you're saying that these prisoners are too dangerous to be in general population, but yet, they're not so dangerous to have to be celled together, 23 hours a day lockdown, 24 hours a day on Saturdays and Sundays.
SHAPIRO: Prisoners like Hill told us that at Lewisburg, what they fear most is their own cellmate, the man just inches away in a cell, often just 6-feet-wide-by-10-feet-long, so small that if one man stands up, the other man has to get on his bunk. Federal officials say they're careful to match cellmates who are compatible.
But we obtained records of two years of inmate fights so severe that prison guards in gas masks had to fire pepper spray and then handcuff the inmates to stop the violence. There were some 230 of those extreme fights in just 2014 and 2015. And since 2010, at least four inmates have been killed by their cellmate.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) I feared for my life every day I was there because of the conditions, because of the viciousness of putting people in cages with people they weren't supposed to.
SHAPIRO: Those are the words of inmate David Reid being read from a court transcript. Reid was a member of the Nazi Low Rider gang, with tattoos of skulls, swastikas.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) I feared for my life the whole time I was there. I'm sure everybody else did, too.
SHAPIRO: We're going to describe some of that extreme violence at Lewisburg. A warning - the next 30 seconds may be difficult for some listeners to hear. This is from a trial, the one where Reid testified, of an inmate who prosecutors say killed a cellmate in a dispute over missing postage stamps. Stamps are a form of currency in prison. The killer stomped and kicked his cellmate in the head so brutally that corrections officers who were waiting for reinforcements on the other side of the heavy cell door said they could hear the popping of bones breaking.
At the same trial, another inmate testified his cellmate raped him day and night. But when he told guards, he says they ignored him or laughed at him. Jana Oman's father seemed an unlikely person to end up on a unit for such violent men. Gerardo Arche didn't commit a violent crime. He wasn't a gang member. But at other prisons, he'd been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Happy birthday to you.
SHAPIRO: Home videos show him at the center of family fun, like this one of Arche joking around with his blue and white birthday cake. As a young man, he'd come into the United States illegally from Mexico looking for work. He married and had a family here. He got arrested for robbery and was sent back to Mexico. He'd sneak back across the border to see his family in Utah. He got caught again and ended up in the federal prison at Lewisburg.
OMAN: It was hell. It was hell. He - you could hear it in his voice every time he spoke on the phone or he wrote a letter. Little by little, he was just falling apart.
SHAPIRO: Oman says her father was bewildered and scared by the rough life there. Arche was old for Lewisburg, at 57, a slender man with graying hair and mustache.
OMAN: It says, hi, Jana, como estas, mija?
SHAPIRO: In letters home, he wrote that he needed his medicine - the pills he got at other prisons but that he said were taken away at that Pennsylvania prison. Other inmates tell similar stories. Arche's letters were often full of delusional ramblings, in this letter read by his daughter, about imaginary people who called him their leader.
OMAN: (Reading) One billion plus of Ellies are still afraid of me because they think I'm very powerful man. That makes me laugh. In my society, I was a nobody. Now I am a legend, I think.
SHAPIRO: The same month he wrote this letter, a medical staffer interviewed him from outside his cell door and concluded he had no significant mental health issues. NPR and The Marshall Project obtained records that showed these screens were repeated almost monthly with the same conclusion every time. We also got Arche's prison records from before Lewisburg. Those show a long history of hallucinations, prisons where he was prescribed powerful anti-psychotic drugs like Haldol.
Without his medications, his daughter says he got agitated, and often at Lewisburg he'd be put in chains so tight they left marks on his hands and ankles. It was her father's cellmate who told Oman about the restraints. That cellmate, a younger man, took care of the older one. Then one day, the younger man was transferred to another prison. Arche got other cellmates and eventually the one who allegedly killed him, a man who also had a history of psychiatric illness.
HILL: You see these guys that have mental health problems and they just force these two individuals into a cell, and then they beat the hell out of each other or stab each other.
SHAPIRO: That's Demetrius Hill, the Lewisburg inmate. He says he lived in the cell directly below Arche and that cellmate. He heard the violence that night and someone banging and banging on the cell door to get out.
HILL: They had been beating on that door for hours. We heard it.
SHAPIRO: Hill says corrections officers ignored it. Prison officials declined our request for interviews. In August, the Bureau of Prisons did announce it will now require inmates get more screenings for mental illness at Lewisburg and cut the time inmates spend in the Special Management Unit.
In June, a U.S. attorney sent a letter to the man accused of attacking Arche, saying a grand jury was investigating whether to charge him with murder. But then Lewisburg transferred him to a prison for people with serious health issues. Now Gerardo Arche's accused killer may be too ill to ever go to trial. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.