Inmates held at the various La Tuna federal prison facilities are convinced they have been denied visits, thrown in "the hole" for minor infractions and denied access to the prison law library because they went public with a lawsuit claiming the federal Bureau of Prisons isn't following its own procedures.
Requests for interviews with two of the inmates have been denied twice by La Tuna officials who said it was for the safety of the prisoners. By mail, those inmates have said they want to be interviewed. In that correspondence, they have claimed they are experiencing retaliation for their lawful actions.
"That's just simply not true," said La Tuna spokesman Israel Jacquez. "These guys went to the press. That's their right. ... If we believe a staff member is retaliating against an inmate, no matter how frivolous the allegation may be, it is referred to the office of internal affairs."
Wayne D. Beaman, special agent in charge of the Dallas Office of the Department of Justice's Office of the Inspector General,wouldn't comment on the specific allegations, but said, "La Tuna is a well-managed facility." The Dallas office oversees federal prisons in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas, Beaman said.
The inmates' lawsuit claims that the Bureau of Prisons, or BoP, is ignoring its own policies when it houses prisoners in facilities with more severe security measures than are required by the inmates' classifications and when it houses inmates outside a 500-mile radius from the areas where they expect to be released.
However, a convict needs "rock-solid proof" to make a case against the BoP, said Jay Hurst, an attorney and chief of legislative affairs for FedCURE, an inmates' rights group. Hurst had a client in La Tuna -- he recently was transferred to another facility -- who also says he suffered retaliation.
"The Constitution doesn't apply in the federal system any more than it does in the state systems," Hurst said. "It's hard to make a case because you can't get records and you are relying on the testimony of a bunch of 'cons.' ... It's a system-wide culture. As long as the good order and security is preserved, that's what they care about."
Lawrence J. Levine, convicted of possessing counterfeit securities and conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, filed the lawsuit for himself and others in the system. He and others, including Robert Carter, convicted of mail and tax fraud, have said they are being targeted by guards and administrators because of their actions.
Levine's lawsuit recently was dismissed by U.S. District Judge David Briones after it appeared Levine had failed to respond to a Bureau of Prisons motion to dismiss. However, Levine said he mailed the response and it was lost in the mail or intercepted. He has asked the judge to reopen the case.
Jacquez said the U.S. Attorneys Office is reviewing Levine's claim. Levine said prison officials also have been gradually limiting his access to the law library. Jacquez said everyone has to work their hours unless they can prove they have an impending court date.
"There is no preferential treatment," he said.
Levine said his work assignment originally was in food service because of medical issues, including bulging disks and a heart problem, which require limitations on the amount of walking, standing and lifting. That job allowed time to use the law library, he said.
He says he was switched to ground maintenance, which requires prolonged standing and walking on shifts that coincide with the law library's daytime hours. A week after stories about the lawsuit appeared in the media, Levine says, his education schedule was changed from daytime to evening hours, which limits his evening access.
Levine asked the judge to issue an order directing La Tuna staff to allow him unrestricted law library access, which he argues is required by BoP policies.
Carter says he was subjected to entrapment when he picked up a bag on the floor of the chapel -- which also serves as a visiting room -- containing two white T-shirts and a watch. Those items were labeled as "contraband" by BoP officials who apparently believed someone left it for him.
Carter said the bag wasn't his and said he was taken into custody by guards at the scene before he even had a chance to look inside.
Carter said he was put in the special housing unit, or the SHU, which some inmates call "the hole" because of the limited human contact they are allowed there. Documents Carter provided show he lost visits from the outside for eight months, and commissary privileges for 90 days. He said he was only allowed one 10-minute phone call each week. All this, he said, even though he had a clean record before the incident.
He is now at the La Tuna Federal Correctional Institute, which houses medium- and low-security inmates, requiring an even higher level of security than his previous La Tuna placement.
"He was sanctioned for a violation and subjected to disciplinary action," Jacquez said. "It was the introduction of contraband. ... There's no way he could be trusted out at the (low- and minimum-security) Biggs facility."
Treated Like A Criminal
The original inmate complaint involved placements with appropriate security levels.
Some prisoners, including Levine and Carter, were housed at a federal prison camp -- which is the least restrictive type of facility -- near Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. That facility was closed for budget reasons and they were transferred to the La Tuna Federal Satellite Low, or FSL, prison on Biggs Army Airfield. The FSL houses both minimum- and low-security inmates, which require a higher level of security.
The inmates say the bureau is ignoring its own stated mission of confining offenders in safe, humane and appropriately secure facilities that provide work and other self-improvement opportunities "to assist offenders in becoming law-abiding citizens."
They claim that transferring inmates to a higher security facility requires "a specific and compelling reason," which the BoP did not provide. They say these transfer policies are contained in the bureau's own Program Statements.
"We try to place inmates in facilities where they're all equal in classification," Jacquez said. "It has to do with length of sentence, type of crime, history of violence."
Jacquez said part of the reason Carter originally could have been transferred from the minimum-security camp in Nevada to the low-security facility at Biggs is that his sentence is "pretty heavy duty. He was fairly fortunate to be classified as minimum security."
Carter was sentenced to five years and 11 months and has a release date of June 19, 2010.
Budgets And Beds
Hurst said he believes there is a case that the BoP didn't follow its stated policies, but, in his experience, it won't be easy to get a judge to agree.
With federal budget cuts and efforts to make the system more efficient, particularly in the Western region, prison officials have said bed space is at a premium and the policies can't always be followed. Jacquez said another satellite camp opening in Tucson will help relieve some of those problems.
"We might be able to refer a little closer" to the inmates' homes, he said.
The Biggs facility "used to be just a prison camp, but the BoP needed more space for low-security," Jacquez said. "It's rare that you're going to have a stand-alone prison for one group of inmates."
Every Biggs facility prisoner is subject to the security measures designed for low-security inmates, which are more strict than the minimum measures used at prison camps. The only way an inmate is rewarded is with time off for good behavior, Jacquez said. Otherwise it would be seen as preferential treatment, he said, which could single an inmate out for retribution from other inmates.
"You've got to treat all the inmates the same," Jacquez said. And to be placed at the Biggs facility, he said, they must have "very little history of disciplinary actions in prison."
Ostensibly, the purpose of those policies is to keep inmates connected with the more positive elements in society -- including family and friends -- and in the prison system so they don't leave prison more isolated, angry and educated in crime than when they entered.
Relatives, who often are traveling thousands of miles, have been turned away for triggering a drug screening device. Carter's wife, Ginny, who lives in Illinois, said she was turned away once and when she asked for documentation of the incident, the BoP responded that it had no records.
"It is disheartening and appalling to see how the prison staff use the ion spectrometer machine to deny visits to people who simply want to spend time with their loved ones," said Ginny Carter. "It appears that the machine is used both randomly and specifically when certain persons are targeted as I was."
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