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Allegations of hunger and violence at USP McCreary

By Eugenia Jones {Editor}

A reflection on society

It was the Russian novelist, essayist, and journalist Fyodor Dostoevsky who once said, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”  If Dostoevsky’s observation and multiple allegations surfacing throughout recent months regarding deplorable conditions at USP McCreary in Pine Knot, KY are true, society may well have reason to be concerned.
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In December 2022, The McCreary County Voice received information regarding concerns about the treatment of inmates during an extended disciplinary lockdown at USP McCreary satellite minimum security camp, lasting at least from November 21, 2022 – January 1, 2023.  The disciplinary lockdown was implemented after hard contraband was located again in a common area of the Camp.  As a result, all camp inmates were confined to their living quarters with television remaining off during that time.  Additionally, the following privileges were suspended:  visitation, TRU-Lincs (Phone and Email), with commissary restricted for all camp inmates.
On December 5, 2022, during the time of the lockdown, The Voice received an email from an anonymous individual outside of the prison who was concerned about the inmates at the USP McCreary Satellite Camp.  The information indicated all camp inmates were being denied use of phones, email, and commissary.  At that point, the inmates allegedly had received bologna sandwiches for every meal since November 21, 2022, for a total of thirty three times in eleven days.  Reportedly, all meals consisted solely of bologna sandwiches with tiny bags of chips.  The concerned individual stated all camp inmates were kept inside 24 hours per day.
Additionally, the camp inmates reportedly had been denied paperwork to file grievances and were threatened with the SHU (special housing unit) if they made any reports regarding lockdown conditions.
On day 17 of the lockdown, The Voice received an additional report alleging the inmates were on day 17 (51 meals) of bologna, bread, and chips.  The individual (remaining anonymous out of fear of retribution to inmates or employees) stated inmates had not been allowed outside and were getting weak and sick.  Reportedly, one man who needed supplemental nutrition did not have supplemental nutrition available to him.
The Voice followed up on the information we received by contacting USP McCreary and submitting a FOIA (open records) request on December 7, 2022 through the appropriate Bureau of Prisons (BOP) channel.  As part of its FOIA request, The Voice requested copies of the daily menus served during the lockdown at USP McCreary and any/all records regarding the lack of availability of special diet needs.  USP McCreary was also contacted directly.  However, when the USP McCreary spokesperson learned an open records request had been submitted, the spokesperson would not comment on the allegations.  The Voice received notice on December 14, 2022 that its request for expedited processing of the FOIA request had been approved.
Fast forward to January 19, 2023.  The Voice finally received a response to its FOIA request regarding any/all records pertaining to sanctions placed on all camp inmates at USP McCreary.  The response consisted of eight and one half pages of redacted records.
The pages released to The Voice included nationwide BOP policy handbook materials including two pages (from Chapter 2) of general trust fund operations (commissary), two pages (from Chapter 6) of specialized food service programs, and one page relating to BOP inmate telephone policy.  The Voice received only 2 ½ pages specific to USP McCreary-two pages concerning switchgear replacement and ½ page confirming a disciplinary lockdown lasting from November 21, 2022-January 1, 2023 with confinement of all camp residents and suspension of visitation, television, phone, email, and restricted commissary.  The BOP response did not include details regarding food service specific to USP McCreary during the lockdown except to note inmate orderlies would not be required in USP McCreary’s food service during the lockdown.
Since there was no response from BOP or USP McCreary until January 19, 2023 (well after the lockdown was scheduled to end), The Voice did not proceed with an article.  The Voice was concerned about the minimal amount of information it had managed to obtain and also concerned proceeding with an article after the lockdown might lead to retaliation against inmates or employees.
Later, The Voice published two articles in November 2023, one regarding an alleged walk-off from the camp facility and the other, a BOP press release regarding the death of an inmate.  The Voice has been unable to confirm the cause of the inmate’s death and surrounding circumstances.
Additionally, in December 2023, The Voice published a two-part series, examining USP McCreary, twenty years after its opening.  In the series, The Voice examined safety concerns impacting both staff and inmates at USP McCreary, especially in regard to violence.
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The Voice recently became aware of the District of Columbia Corrections Information Council (CIC), an independent oversight body mandated by the United States Congress and the Council of the District of Columbia to inspect, monitor, and report on the conditions of confinement in correctional facilities where residents from the District of Columbia are incarcerated.  This includes facilities operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).  After learning the CIC inspected USP McCreary in December 2022, The Voice wanted to see if the CIC findings, in any way, confirmed the anonymous reports received by the newspaper in December 2022.
The following are a few of the details and CIC findings reported as a result of the December 2022 inspection of USP McCreary.
• At the time of the CIC inspection, 59 inmates at USP McCreary were sentenced by the DC Superior Court. The total prison population was 1,576 with a rated capacity of 955.   Forty-two of the DC men agreed to complete surveys and interviews, including four of the seven who were, at the time, in SHU.  Main topics addressed were:  staff conduct (including allegations of physical abuse of inmates, both on and off camera), the frequency of lockdowns with commissary restrictions, and lack of hygiene supplies in SHU.  As was agreed upon, CIC did not tour the kitchen, dining hall, and commissary.  CIC did not see the SHU.  No programming was being offered when the CIC visit took place.
• Force was used with inmates 156 times from November 1, 2021 to October 31, 2022, averaging a use of force approximately three times a week.  Restraints were used 83 times from November 1, 2021 to October 31, 2022.  There were 97 events in which chemicals were used.  (Report of Significant Incidents from TruIntel Data by Facility for Facility from November 2021-November 2022)
• There were four assaults on staff with a weapon and six assaults on staff without a weapon. There were 23 assaults on inmates with a weapon and 84 assaults on inmates without a weapon.  (Report of Significant Incidents from TruIntel Data by Facility for Facility from November 2021-November 2022)
• Several inmate interviewees reported abusive behavior or racist remarks from some members of the staff.  Fourteen survey respondents stated they had been physically abused by some members of staff while at USP McCreary.  Nine survey respondents filed grievances about staff behavior at USP McCreary.  Seven survey respondents stated they were assaulted by staff in areas of USP McCreary where there are no cameras.  Four survey respondents stated they had been physically abused by other residents while at USP McCreary.
• From November 1, 2021 to October 31, 2022, there were 23 institution wide lockdowns.  Six lockdowns occurred in December 2021 and nine occurred in May 2022.
• Every inmate interviewee stated when one person does something wrong, the whole unit is denied commissary.  Residents state this is unfair and causes more violence in the facility.
• 18 of 26 inmates who had spent time in SHU reported not having access to books or law library.
• 16 survey respondents stated Medical Service does not respond to sick call slips within 48 hours.
• 20 survey respondents stated grievance forms were not available.
• Eleven residents alleged the institution is not following the national menu and that portions are too small.  Several stated they have experienced significant, unplanned weight loss.  (USP McCreary officials responded to CIC that the national menu is followed.)
• Nineteen survey respondents said they did not have access to reading materials.
As a result of their inspection, recommendations of the CIC included (among others) the following:
• Administration should review footage from cameras on dates that residents have indicated incidents of physical abuse of residents by staff.  Consideration should be given to the installation of additional cameras where residents have reported assaults in blind spots.
• Warden and staff should develop alternatives to unit wide lockdowns in response to individual infractions.
• Warden and staff should develop alternatives to unit wide commissary restrictions in response to individual infractions.
• During the close out meeting between Executive staff and CIC, the warden and staff from the BOP’s Central Office said the allegations of staff abuse would only be investigated if the names of residents making the allegations were provided.  To ensure the anonymity of the residents’ concerns so as to protect them from retaliation, the CIC did not disclose specific details, such as names of the prisoners.  Because of this, BOP limited their responses to many of the allegations and did not thoroughly respond to or investigate many of the complaints.
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Less than two weeks ago, USP McCreary made headlines when Washington City Paper published an article, “Hunger and violence dominate daily life at USP McCreary, where D.C. Men are incarcerated” written by Askia Afrika-Ber, an inmate born and raised in Southeast D.C. and Prince George’s County and currently serving a 53-year sentence for felony murder in USP McCreary.  Afrika-Ber’s piece also contains inserted editor notes by Washington City Paper editor, Mitch Ryals.
In the article, Afrika-Ber views conditions at USP McCreary through the lens of his own observations, interactions and personal perspective.
Throughout the article, Ryals inserts comments from a BOP spokesperson who answered questions in generalities, citing overarching policies, and declining to address any specific allegations.  Ryals also draws on data from the 2022/23 CIC inspection, citing interviews revealing allegations of group punishment and abusive correction officers.
In the article, Afrika-Ber writes:
“At this high-security pen, Warden John Gilley has created a house of horrors.
Prisoners are hungry.  Violence is everywhere.  And those things, I believe, are not unrelated.  Gilley’s policy of collective punishment-where many are punished for the misbehavior of a few-has weaponized the prison’s cafeteria food and commissary privileges and created animosity among those of us who are incarcerated here at McCreary.  Fights and assaults are regular occurrences, often over food.  There is a ban on books sent into the facility, and plexiglass barriers left over from the pandemic diminish the value of contact visits.”
Afrika-Ber continues by describing his first impressions of USP McCreary, after being transferred there from USP Big Sandy high-security federal prison in Inez, KY.
“When I arrived on the yard at McCreary for the first time, the first thing to grab my attention was just how depressed and raggedy the men appeared.  They reminded me of still images of starving POWs in Japanese internment camps and Nazi concentration camps, or more recent images of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.”
“Prisoners walked around the housing unit and rec yard looking stressed and undernourished.  They wore old, dingy gray sweats and gym short and worn-out tennis shoes-some with the soles hanging off.  A common theme reverberated through the conversations I had with men from various ethnicities and geographical locations:  hunger.  Every single man I talked to complained of being utterly and completely hungry.”
Afrika-Ber’s piece in the Washington City Paper seems to confirm earlier reports received by The Voice regarding the “overuse” of bologna as a dietary staple.
“Then there’s the matter of the bologna diet. The administration doesn’t allow us to eat dinner in the prison cafeteria. We’re told that this is to reduce the potential for prisoner-on-prisoner assaults in the dining area during the evening shift when there are fewer guards on duty to respond to distress calls.”  (The staffing shortage in Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities is well-documented, as are the consequences, including horrible conditions, inhumane treatment, and violence.)
“Instead, we are fed a low-calorie diet consisting of four pieces of bread, two slices of low-grade bologna, 1/4 cup of diced carrots or celery, and a single, one ounce bag of chips. On other days, we are fed a cold piece of roast beef, tuna, or peanut butter and jelly, with the same ole sides.
The men I’ve spoken to in the 5A housing unit, and throughout the prison, are losing weight because of this diet. Many have complained to me about their health problems, including hypertension, high cholesterol, acid reflux, gas, and constipation, which they believe are due to their current diets. Even the medical department here makes fun of the bologna diet.”
The author reaches a nightmarish conclusion of prison conditions at USP McCreary.
“In my view, the only thing the warden has successfully accomplished with his growing list of deterrents is to create a famished, desperately aggressive, hostile, and unsafe environment.  Any prisoner serious about rehabilitating himself faces long odds.”
Afrika-Ber ends his story with a simple, heartfelt request.
“I, along with every other Washington, D.C. prisoner at USP McCreary, humbly request that a delegation of D. C. representatives, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, joins with the Corrections Information Council to visit with us and check on our repressive and inhumane living conditions here at USP McCreary.”
  • • • • • • • •
The McCreary County Voice contacted USP McCreary for an interview and/or input regarding allegations against the prison; however, as of press time, USP McCreary had not responded to multiple requests.
• • • • • • • •
Unacceptable treatment of inmates at some, but not all, federal prisons and other correctional facilities is a nationwide problem.
As for the allegations regarding conditions at USP McCreary, there is a troublesome pattern to repeated reports of unacceptable treatment of inmates, especially concerning adequate nutrition, disciplinary procedures, conflict resolution, and the provision of opportunities for residents to rehabilitate.
Thankfully, Washington, D.C. inmates, including those residing at USP McCreary, have a mandated oversight group to inspect, monitor, and report on their living conditions.  If not already established, it seems mandated groups might be needed to inspect, monitor, and report on the living conditions of inmates from all fifty states.
According to “Introduction to Federal Prison-Prison Handbook,” the purpose of a federal prison is to protect society by detaining offenders in a controlled environment that is secure, humane, safe, and cost-efficient. Additionally, it is the goal of a federal prison to offer self-improvement opportunities that will assist offenders in becoming law-abiding citizens.
It seems fulfilling the stated purpose of a federal prison at USP McCreary and other correctional facilities across the nation might best be accomplished by following the simple Biblical command found in Hebrews 13:3 (NRSV):
“Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them.”

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