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50 years of advocacy for central Pa. prison watchdog

An aerial view of the U.S. Penitentiary at Lewisburg in Union County.
Google Earth
An aerial view of the U.S. Penitentiary at Lewisburg in Union County.

A prison watchdog group in central Pennsylvania has advocated for humane treatment in jails and affected change for 50 years.

What started in 1973 as a kitchen-table inquiry into conditions at a federal prison in Union County grew into the Lewisburg Prison Project, a nonprofit that has shared legal information with prisoners across the country and won lawsuits that altered prison practices in the commonwealth.

Over time, the Lewisburg Prison Project (LPP) put a spotlight on prisons throughout the Susquehanna Valley, including the U.S. Penitentiary at Allenwood and the women-only state prison at Muncy in Lycoming County. But it first homed in on its namesake, a Federal Bureau of Prisons facility built in Lewisburg in 1932.

Their advocacy later expanded to county jails and state prisons throughout northeastern and central Pennsylvania. Volunteers attend prison board meetings in Columbia, Northumberland and Snyder counties. LPP also began working with the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, an organization that provides free legal assistance to prisoners on civil matters.

“The only thing the Lewisburg Prison Project has ever focused on is the conditions of confinement,” said Angela Trop, president of LPP’s board. “We don’t say whether someone should be there or not, we don’t say how long they should be there or that they should get out. We really look at while you're in prison... you should be treated humanely while you serve that sentence.”

Most people in prisons return to society and treating them like second-class citizens does little for their rehabilitation, Trop said.

Founding members

Three women – Isabelle Patten, Brigitte Cooke and Sally Farber – founded the group in 1973 at Cooke’s home after hearing of troubling issues at USP Lewisburg. Trop said the women started writing letters to people incarcerated at the facility and soon received replies.

“What they were looking into was overcrowding, racial discrimination, mail tampering, that there were some punitive transfers – just all kinds of issues,” Trop said. “They were resourceful women.”

Soon, Trop said, the founders reached out to attorneys and in 1975 filed a class action lawsuit that pushed for changes in a restrictive housing unit at USP Lewisburg, namely improved ventilation, better access to running water and more opportunities to exercise and shower. LPP won their first lawsuit, Trop said.

“We prefer advocacy first… filing a lawsuit is always a last resort,” said Trop, who joined LPP in the early 2000s. She added that LPP reaches out to prison administrations directly and tries to address concerns before legal steps are taken.

By 1979, LPP finally had an office, one employee and several volunteers. Their reach grew when they began distributing legal bulletins and “know your rights” fact sheets by mail, breaking down legal jargon for people incarcerated throughout the U.S.

“They’re pieces of the law written in layman's terms, because most of us can’t read 'lawyer-speak,'” Trop said. “We still to this day send those out all over the country.”

But most of LPP’s efforts are focused on Pennsylvania prisons and the people incarcerated locally. In addition to Allenwood and Lewisburg complexes both in Union County, federal prisons also exist in Wayne and Schuylkill counties. The U.S. Middle District of Pennsylvania is home to one of the highest concentrations of federal prisoner populations in the country, according to the Department of Justice.

Keeping an eye on those institutions and corresponding with people incarcerated there has kept LPP busy for half a century. Between January and October 2022, the nonprofit responded to more than 2,100 letters from prisoners and their families.

“When we don’t question our government agencies, with some education behind it… then we become a lethargic nation,” Trop said.

Conditions affect more than the incarcerated

Now retired, Dave Sprout got involved with LPP in the mid-80s as a paralegal and currently sits on the board. He said county, state and federal prisons are large employers in the region and many residents in central Pa. either work at a facility or know someone who works at one.

While LPP petitions for the rights of people locked up in Pennsylvania prisons, Sprout said the organization does not see itself in opposition to those who work there. “People think it’s ‘us against them’ and it never really was that,” Sprout said.

Sprout said a settlement with Northumberland County stemming from a 2008 class action lawsuit recommended, among other things, more medical and mental health staffers at the institution. Sprout said more access to care at the county prison improved conditions for correctional workers, too.

“After we settled and I would still go to visit [Northumberland County Prison], I had many correctional officers come up to me and say ‘thank you, you made our job better by cleaning this place up a little bit,’” he said.

Stephanie Hoffa, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 148, which represents correctional officers at USP Lewisburg, said the union hasn’t historically had much communication with LPP.

Hoffa said current employees have been fighting to fill staff vacancies. Lewisburg has about 40 less correctional officers than other institutions at the medium-security level, Hoffa said. As of April, about 170 officers worked at Lewisburg, she said.

There are currently 692 people incarcerated at USP Lewisburg, with 281 prisoners at an adjacent camp at the complex, according to the BOP.

Eyes on the SMU

A 2016 collaborative investigation from NPR and the Marshall Project delved into long-term restraining practices and allegations of violence resulting from solitary confinement at Lewisburg’s Special Management Unit. The Federal Bureau of Prisons created the SMU to house "defiant, antagonistic, and violent inmates," according to a review. Reporters reached out to Sprout and the Lewisburg Prison Project for insights.

“For 10 years at the project before I retired… my main focus was the SMU at Lewisburg because of how bad it was,” Sprout said.

Some men were required to share a cell meant for a single person due to overcrowding, the investigation found, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons said the practice was meant to teach inmates how to coexist.

But Sprout had heard from Sebastian Richardson, then-incarcerated at Lewisburg, who refused to share a cell with another man known by staff and inmates to be violent. Because he protested, guards shackled him for weeks at a time on two occasions, per reporting from NPR/Marshall Project.

Civil rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate.

The Special Management Unit was moved from Lewisburg to another federal facility in Thomson, Illinois after the investigation. Many prisoners were also transferred. And earlier this year, NPR reported that the Bureau of Prisons would close the unit in Illinois. It's not clear if the unit would move to another federal prison.

“By losing your freedom, you shouldn’t lose all your rights,” Sprout said, “and that’s where the project comes in.”

Tom Riese is a multimedia reporter and the local host for NPR's Morning Edition. He comes to NEPA by way of Philadelphia. He is a York County native who studied journalism at Temple University.