By Richard Luthmann
At USP Tucson, Keith Raniere has been in “Administrative Segregation” since July 26, 2022.
Commonly known as the “SHU” (Special Housing Unit), its purpose is to house inmates in a “lockdown” environment, no different from Death Row or a Super Max Prison.
It is a miserable place meant to punish – a torturous cage for those already in jail.
I know because I spent the better part of two months in “the Box” in the fall of 2020.
I was taken to the SHU on September 3, 2020, the Thursday before Labor Day. The guards raided my “housing cube” at the Allenwood Low-Security prison. There were no cells at Allenwood Low, only 14-foot by 14-foot cinderblock “cubes” where three prisoners would be packed in close quarters – usually a bunk bed along with a “sidecar” single bed. Considering the metal desk and the three lockers in the cube (one for each prisoner), inmates lived on top of each other. This was particularly true at that time, given the “Lockdown” Modified Operations adopted by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in response to Covid-19.
Living “on top of” two other inmates in a 196 square foot space, when the prison guards found a cell phone plugged in and charging under the bunk of one of the other inmates in the cube, they took all three of us in. Initially, the guards took us to R&D (Receiving & Discharge), put each of us in separate tanks, and started questioning us. I told the Lieutenant that I didn’t know anything about any cell phones. Looking askance, the Lieutenant took this as my “statement” of non-cooperation.
I was put through a body scanner, and the prison cops decided to take us “in.”
The BOP charged all three of us with possession of a cell phone – a Series “100” level shot, the highest severity disciplinary charge. The technical charge is “108 – Possession of a Hazardous Tool.” In the BOP, possession of a cell phone is punished on par with possession of a twelve-inch prison shank, a homemade flame thrower, a hacksaw blade, or other “tools” that could kill, maim, or otherwise seriously injure guards and other inmates.
Other Series 100 level shots include 100 – KIlling, 102 – Escape, 104 – Possession of a Firearm, and 114 – Sexual Assault.
I was cuffed and led into the SHU building. After that, I was placed in a holding cell in the front of the facility. My cuffs were removed through the “wicket,” an opening in the cell door that allows staff to pass food or medication or handcuff inmates before allowing them outside the cell. I had to bend down and back up to the wicket as the cuffs were removed through the door slit and from behind. This is standard practice for any prisoner movements in the ultra-high security level of the SHU.
Next, the guard told me to undress and put all my clothes into a plastic bag. Standing there naked, I was given a net bag with two t-shirts, a pair of boxers, a blanket, two white bed sheets, and an orange jumpsuit. All items were used. They were “clean,” but permanent stains, especially on the boxers, told a different tale. Aside from some prisoner-grade CHARM-TEX toothpaste, there was nothing else in the way of soap or toiletries available.
The opportunities to buy more toiletries were minimal. The SHU Commissary was available only twice a month. Inmates can purchase one small bar of soap, one mini stick of deodorant, one bag of instant coffee (even though there was no hot water), one Hershey’s bar, some assorted items including vitamins, and not much else.
SHU cell doors have “wickets” that guards use to pass food and meds or cuff inmates up prior to movement.
I arrived on a Thursday afternoon (before the long Labor Day weekend). I wasn’t able to “shop” until late the following week. After that, the SHU Commissary wasn’t scheduled for another two weeks. For extended periods, I had to deal with scarce items of inadequate sanitary and/or nutritional value.
The SHU cell range is downstairs.
My cell was furnished with a triple-bed metal-framed bunk-bed (with a sleeping berth similar to a submarine made for a 150-pound sailor), a metal desk with a metal slide-seat attached mounted in the concrete, a stainless steel toilet/sink combo with no seat, and a florescent wall light with the switch outside controlled by the guards.
The cell was sixteen feet long, seven feet wide, and nine feet high. The floor was concrete. The brick walls were painted white. A frosted window allowed light between two thick bars, though you could not see the outside world.
I immediately noticed an ant problem, and realized I wouldn’t be spending all the time alone.
In the SHU, you are locked down for 23 hours a day. The only time you leave the cell is during the week. On the weekends, you are holed up.
The highlight of the day is when guards bring the hours-old, cold food trays from the prison kitchen and slip them through the wicket.
On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, the guards come and cuff the inmates through the wicket (bending down backward to get handcuffed), and they take us, cell by cell, to a grimy, moldy, caged stall where you shower.
Two days a week (usually Tuesdays and Fridays), SHU inmates would have the opportunity to go outside to the “birdcages” (big steel cages on all four sides and on top, kind of like a steel cage used by professional wrestlers) in which we would get a few hours of “REC.”
This meant we could walk around the cage and do a prison workout of pushups, sit-ups, planks, and burpees.
If you decided to go to the exercise cage, you forfeit your shower that day. For the guards, it was one or the other. If a SHU range had 20 cells, it would take the guards over three hours to bring the inmates back and forth to the showers, one cell at a time. So guards deny prisoners showers for any reason to make their job easier.
One of their favorite “Faustian bargains” was to let prisoners decide whether to skip a shower for an extra tray of food. The choice was to be hungry and clean, or filthy and fed.
During the week, the guards turned the bright fluorescent lights on at 6:00 AM and shut them off at 11:00 PM, so there were only 7 hours of darkness for sleep. The lights were a cruel punishment; the inmates weren’t going anywhere.
On the weekends, SHU inmates are locked down the whole day inside their cells.
The SHU economy is something else. The orderly gig is the only “hustle” in the SHU.
The guards pick two SHU inmates and let them out of their cells at 6:00 AM to do anything that requires physical effort. Sweeping, mopping, cleaning, delivering food, and wheeling around the book cart, SHU orderlies work until 9:00 PM each day doing things the guards are supposed to do. This allows the guards to sit in their office, surf the Internet, watch TV, and bullshit with each other.
The orderlies get paid by SHU inmates to steal food and items from other inmates’ stored property and sell these things back to SHU inmates.
When the orderlies are not doing things the guards are paid to do, they sit in a broom closet where they have access to a microwave, the SHU prisoners’ food from the kitchen, and the duffle bags full of SHU prisoners’ property.
I bought a deck of cards from the orderlies to play solitaire, and gin and rummy 500 with another inmate that got thrown into the SHU cell with me for a time. My SHU “cellie” and I made a deck of pinochle cards from milk cartons from breakfast.
We played a lot of pinochle to pass the time.
More than anything, I read in the SHU. I had plenty of time (at least five hours) each day that I spent reading.
The book cart in the SHU wasn’t bad – probably because many SHU residents were illiterate.
The only snag was that you could only get four books per week. So, I made deals with inmates in other cells to pick up books for me. In exchange, I would send them extra food or other items I procured from the orderlies.
One thing SHU inmates do is tear up one of their bedsheets into strips and tie them together to form a “line.” Using that line and an “anchor” on top (an item of weight), prisoners could “fish” lines back and forth to move items between cells. As long as the thing was on the SHU range, and as long as the guards didn’t see, you could get your hands on it.
It wasn’t until almost November that the “shot” against me was dismissed for lack of evidence. After an “exhaustive” investigation by Allenwood, I was released from the SHU and allowed back into General Population.
As bad as prison is, the jail inside prison is exponentially worse. When you return to a regular unit, you have to start over. All your food and most of the small creature comforts you had before the SHU visit were tossed by the guards or scavenged by other inmates.
If your cellie ends up going to the SHU, it is like hitting the “prison lottery” because you become the beneficiary of a large portion of his stuff. These are meager things: ramen noodles, saccharine-laced drink mix, mackerel pouches, and the like. But in prison, this is all you have.
My SHU visit was less than sixty days. It is a cruel and unusual place to be warehoused inside a prison.
While sometimes there are penological reasons for segregated housing, the BOP’s administrative procedures offer SHU inmates no meaningful recourse when lazy, vindictive, and/or sadistic guards engage in prisoner maltreatment.
Prison is hard. Jail inside prison is torture. The SHU is cruel, but not unusual. Confinement in the SHU can cause irreversible psychological damage in as little as 15 days.
Richard Luthmann is a writer, commentator, satirist, and investigative journalist with degrees from Columbia University and the University of Miami. Once a fixture in New York City and State politics, Luthmann is a recovering attorney who lives in Southwest Florida and a proud member of the National Writers Union.
For Article Ideas, Tips, or Help: email@example.com or call 239-287-6352.