Cruel But Not Unusual: An Insider’s Look at Sixty Days in the SHU at a Federal Bureau of Prisons Facility

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.

Holding Cell Door With Wicket

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.

Typical SHU cell in the BOP
What a typical SHU cell looks like at a BOP Institution.  This one is single occupancy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

SHU Food Tray
A SHU food tray, delivered cold through the wicket.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

To get the books and other articles from cell to cell, SHU inmates use a “fishing system.”

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.

Prisoner mental health and the SHU
SHU prisoners can experience irreversible psychological damage after 15 days.

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.

 

About the author

Richard Luthmann

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: richard.luthmann@protonmail.com or call 239-287-6352.

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  • Supersize me -Director Morgan Spurlock’s social experiment in fast-food gastronomy sees him attempting to subsist uniquely on food from the McDonald’s menu for an entire month. In the process his weight balloons, his energy level plummets and he experiences all sorts of unexpected — and terrifying — side effects. He also examines the corporate giant’s growing role in the lives of American consumers and explores its methods of indoctrinating young people and its contribution to America’s obesity epidemic.

    Has an experiment like this been done where only consumption of prison food is concerned? It seems warranted.

    • This topic deserves larger treatment in a full article (or series of articles). I can tell you from my perspective, I was 260 pounds on the day of my arrest on December 15, 2017. After the stress of the indictment and three months of captivity, I ballooned up to 300 pounds. I was pre-diabetic with an A1C of 5.3. Within three months, I was full-blown diabetic with an A1C of over 7.

      The day I left prison, I was 340 pounds. My blood sugar was 386. My A1C was 7.5. It’s taken me a year and a half, but I’m back down to 260 (with much better body composition, body fat, and muscle mass) and I’m headed lower. My daily blood sugar is in the 107-111 range and my A1C is about a 5.

      Just like Morgan Suprlock’s health in SUPERSIZE ME after McDonalds, it’s very easy get your health derailed in the BOP. But it takes time to get back on track. The problem is that many inmates can’t get on track because of the food and the lack of exercise (especially during Covid). Compassionate Release and Home Detention for elderly and sick inmates may sound like something positive, but the BOP’s motivations are much more nefarious: to keep these sick inmates in BOP custody would cause EXPLOSIVE healthcare costs because the prisons are required to provide adequate medical care. And the reason for the health problems is years of exposure to the BOP’s toxic environment, where poor food an exercise options play a large role in causing the harm.

  • The shu should be eliminated. Sensory deprivation for 23/24 hrs is unconscionable. We have psychopaths in power – they are destroying America. All for money.

    • There is some news on this front. The last BOP Prisoners have left the private prisons.

      They fail to tell you that private immigration detention centers are booming. They aren’t BOP institutions. They contract directly with DHS. Check out Moshannon Valley, for example. There are no plans to close that place down. And with would they? Neither the detainees nor their families vote. And the private prison companies give a ton of money to politicians on both sides of the aisle, who can tout the benefits of the “economic activity” that a private facility delivers to a community.

      As with many of the comments, this one also deserves more extensive treatment. From a prisoner’s perspective, sometimes private prisons can be good. For example, these prisons are “pay to play,” which means they are quicker to adapt and incorporate new and helpful technologies. These facilities already have tablets that prisoners can use to watch movies and FaceTime family members – all for a fee. If you have the money, you can live better. And this is usually how it is all around the world. The US BOP is the exception. They treat everyone equally. Equally shitty.

      There is a significant disconnect here. Related to the article, most prisoners caught with cell phones have them because they want to be able to communicate with their spouses, kids, or other family members. But the 100 Level charge makes it less of a punishment to square up and swing at a guard than it does to get caught with a cell phone. So the BOP presents yet another Faustian choice: have limited contact with your family, particularly with small children who may be in their formative years, or risk having a cell phone so you can be part of their lives. Suppose you want to address generational criminality, race, and children of prisoners. Can the Government be surprised with poor outcomes for prisoners and children and families of prisoners when the BOP’s policies exacerbate the destruction of any semblance of family life? Over time, the BOP policies are very costly to society as a whole. But the BOP Administrators don’t care. By the time the children of prisoners grow up and end up in the system, they’ll have been paid for many years and will be out on a retirement pension, and their children will have taken their place.

  • Do you agree that Vanguard is not adapting well to his situation? It seems that he continues to expect special treatment. This combined with his followers who are willing to break or attempt to break the rules has created a more dangerous situation for him than there needs to be. It doesn’t appear that he’ll ever be able to function in the general population.

    • It’s not about special treatment as much as it’s about a confluence of his needs and what appears to be BOP retaliation. I know it may sound a bit over the top to some that the Government would do this, but as Richard Stratton calls them, the “Bureau of Punishment” can be extremely retaliatory. Diesel Therapy is a thing, and I wouldn’t put it past them to get Keith shackled up and then transported around the country for weeks or months until he reaches an ultimate destination if they are looking to ship him out of USP Tuscon.

      Keith’s best bet would be to get placed in the Residential Sex Offender Treatment Program. Residential treatment involves high-intensity programming for a period of 12 to 18 months. However, the BOP only offers the program at USP Marion in Illinois and at FMC Devens in Massachusetts. Both would be solid options for Keith, and both of which would allow for the BOP to make sure he is “in transit” for a suitable amount of time. Long enough to tear at his soul. If the SHU is “prison hell,” then BOP inmate transit is “prison purgatory.”

      The problem Keith has is that these programs target offenders with an elevated risk of reoffending, and the BOP prioritizes inmates nearing release. BOP policy might dictate that he has to wait until after 2130 to apply.

  • This is an eye opener. I would love to find out more. One thing I want to know about is the food. I’m kind of a foodie so how bad is the food.

    Like I mean it’s not the Ritz. But is the food really that bad or ro prisoners just like to grumble.

    • Good food is scarce in the BOP, particularly if you have specialized dietary needs. This is another topic that warrants fuller coverage. There’s a lot to say here about the food the BOP offers and the “innovations” that inmates come up with when it comes to prison cuisine.

  • I find it hard to believe the.BOP would put a prisoner in the SHU without cause. This is not some third world country.

    • We are brainwashed to believe the US brings Justice- it’s just the opposite.

      Court records, police reports- are fiction- just like plea deals are “legal fiction”. Truth is irrelevant in our courts.

      The public must believe in our laws and our courts- it’s too frightening to consider otherwise. So we judge and put presumptive blame on those wrongly punished.

      The deprivation of human rights, civil rights and liberties afforded under law, do not exist in reality.

  • How is it that Keith is in SHU with Toni Fly? Mr. Luthmann can you explain how that happened? Coincidence ? Or by design. If by design what design?

  • All the things Raniere enjoyed doing he can no longer do, and that feels fair to me.
    No volleyball.
    No nocturnal walks.
    No jiggy jig with brainwashed supplicants.
    No enjoyable food for good stores.
    No getting on the place and going to Fiji orIndia or other parts.
    No one to read books for him, then explain them back to him, so he can pretend he read them and just feel off memorised synopsis.
    No week long birthday worship.
    No one dancing, singing, acting, filming him.
    I feel sorry for anyone who shares a cage with him. The mice, the rats and even the cockroaches.

  • It was a statement of your non-cooperation. You wrote about living on top of each other there’s no chance you didn’t know the owner of the cell phone. but snitches get stitches. It’s really surprising that when a charging cell phone was found the prison didn’t just take each prisoner individually out to lunch at the restaurant of their choosing and talk about their feelings. It’s almost as if they have a prison to run and people’s safety to worry about. Oh well maybe next time you’re incarcerated you can suggest a different approach to the guards.

    • How long have you worked in a prison and you still don’t get it? Prisoners who “cooperate” end up getting stabbed. The guards can’t protect them. Who wants to go through life as a snitch and a rat? And yet you hold it against a prisoner who keeps their mouth shut while upholding the “Blue Wall of Silence” is the highest form of virtue signaling.

      The more significant takeaway is that cell phones are just as dangerous to the guards as shanks, hacksaw blades, and homemade flamethrowers. I see the US Attorneys are now actually prosecuting the cell phone possession cases and touting their victories shooting fish in a barrel:

      https://www.justice.gov/usao-mdpa/pr/federal-inmate-sentenced-possessing-cellphone-lsci-allenwood

      https://www.justice.gov/usao-mdpa/pr/lsci-allenwood-inmate-sentenced-possessing-cellphone-prison

      I think that’s a bit problematic because prisoners might wake up and realize that if they’re going to get put away for “hacksaw blade” or “flamethrower” time, they at least should get their money’s worth.

      • A) don’t work at a prison
        B) wrote, “snitches get stitches”

        Your writing is dishonest. Now you’re saying that you knew but you didn’t cooperate in your piece you imply that you knew nothing. That was the point that was being made. Of course you had information. the part of being retaliated against? That fact was written in the comment so work on your reading comprehension next time you’re incarcerated

        • #Triggered

          You’re the dishonest one. You’re “Anonymous.” I sign my name. You may or may not be in law enforcement. Your opinion may or may not carry greater weight. I guess we’ll never know.

          Additionally, I knew nothing about the phone. The other two guys were black and I was the honky in the side-car. They didn’t tell me when they were taking a leak. You make assumptions like a cop or a prosecutor, though. Are you ready to go down the rabbit hole of prison politics and find the 800 pound gorilla that is race/skin color?

          “Snitches get stitches” – Is that a fact? I guess you learned that at PBA meetings.

          • The white guy wants to talk about race. In prison populations. Lol

            When you’re a career criminal everyone looks like law enforcement, eh?

          • I’m no career criminal. But you’re an asshole. And that translates into every language and every walk of life. See, I can make ad hominem attacks too. But I like to stick to the issues.

            On the issue of race, I think you’re right. Maybe I’ll write something about prison “cars” and how they are basically determined by race (white, black, Mexican, American Indian), gang affiliation (Bloods, Crips, YGs, MS-13, Aryan Brotherhood, Aryan Resistance, Mexican Cartels, La Cosa Nostra, etc.) and geography (except for CHOMOs and RATS, who are prison scum). You’ve never heard of it, and maybe readers would like to know about it. Thanks for the idea.

          • Hating law enforcement didn’t stop you from sucking the cancerous Canarsie cock of Curtis Sliwa. I heard that’s why your wife dumped you like medical waste in the Fresh Kills and told Moira everything she knew about your scam.

            Is it true Richie? Does Sliwa insist on wearing the beret to bed?

          • I actually wrote all about this on my SUBSTACK just recently. When I was the Law Chair of the NYS Reform Party, Curtis was the Chairman. His big line was that we’re not like Jerry Kassar and the other troglobites that want to get “wined, dined, and pocket lined.” But when you have something they want, they will come crawling.

            And I don’t hate law enforcement, I’d just like to see some accountability. There are great cops, and there are lousy ones. And there are corrupt ones, like the FBI Agents who planted the kiddie porn on Keith Raniere’s hard drives.

            I also am happy that you made the connection between the Reform Party and Moira’s political prosecution that was a contract fed to her by the NYC and NYS Dems and the other third-party grifters (like the aforementioned pompous one). The first rule of politics and of crime is never to let anyone fuck with your money. Having a strong fifth line in NYC and NYS politics that could swing elections based on policies and not patronage was a real threat to a lot of people. The Reform Party line was the margin of victory against one of the Crowleys out in Queens in 2017. We were fucking up their money. With me out of the picture, they knew that it would be hard to get the 50,000 in the 2018 gubernatorial in order to keep the ballot line. The NY swamp had me whacked, and it’s a good thing they did. I would have come up with a really great candidate, no offense to Mark Molinaro. But now, I still have the goods on a slew of them, along with boatloads of time and spite to fuel an offensive.

            As for Moira and my ex-wife, they belong together. Like the fire breathing hounds that guard the gates of hell.

        • I have to say I feel more compassion for the ex-con than the troll. Richard, you served your time, and I hope you have turned your life around.

          • Thank you. Politics is too dirty. I’m glad I’m out. Journalism is much more fulfilling. You can tell interesting stories about places people have never been, address issues of interest, shine a light on corruption, and help the average denizen in the process.

          • This dude made very egregious claims of having proof that Moira Panda was a dominatrix. Despite having absolute freedom here and in previous posts where he made the outlandish and unfounded claims to produce said proof he never has shown any proof the guy is a liar and not to be trusted about anything.

  • Hey brother, I’ve been there too.
    I was in a county lockup for 3 full days awaiting a hearing. The experience was powerful. The threat of violence and abuses by guards was real and frightening. Sanitary conditions were very poor and the transmission of infections was rampant. I can’t imagine it for a sustained period of time.

    One takeaway: I never want to go back there again and I will do everything in my power to stay away from any behavior that would lead me to be put in that situation again.

    I hope you’re doing better and I have empathy for anyone that has put themselves in such a situation.

About the Author

Frank Parlato is an investigative journalist.

His work has been cited in hundreds of news outlets, like The New York Times, The Daily Mail, VICE News, CBS News, Fox News, New York Post, New York Daily News, Oxygen, Rolling Stone, People Magazine, The Sun, The Times of London, CBS Inside Edition, among many others in all five continents.

His work to expose and take down NXIVM is featured in books like “Captive” by Catherine Oxenberg, “Scarred” by Sarah Edmonson, “The Program” by Toni Natalie, and “NXIVM. La Secta Que Sedujo al Poder en México” by Juan Alberto Vasquez.

Parlato has been prominently featured on HBO’s docuseries “The Vow” and was the lead investigator and coordinating producer for Investigation Discovery’s “The Lost Women of NXIVM.” In addition, he was credited in the Starz docuseries 'Seduced' for saving 'slave' women from being branded and escaping the sex-slave cult known as DOS.

Parlato appeared on the Nancy Grace Show, Beyond the Headlines with Gretchen Carlson, Dr. Oz, American Greed, Dateline NBC, and NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt, where Parlato conducted the first-ever interview with Keith Raniere after his arrest. This was ironic, as many credit Parlato as one of the primary architects of his arrest and the cratering of the cult he founded.

Parlato is a consulting producer and appears in TNT's The Heiress and the Sex Cult, which premieres on May 22, 2022.

IMDb — Frank Parlato

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Parlato,_Jr.

Contact Frank with tips or for help.
Phone / Text: (305) 783-7083
Email: frankparlato@gmail.com

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