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Pennsylvania Prison Substitutes Counseling with Crosswords


In Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, inmates seeking mental health care instead find activity books with coloring pages and puzzles.

A lawsuit is being brought against the United States Penitentiary there, alleging that prisoners are being denied basic mental health care procedures such as counseling and instead are offered pamphlets with crosswords and sudoku.

McCreary v. The Federal Bureau of Prisons, filed June 9, “also alleges that prisoners at Lewisburg are cut off from the medications they were given at other prisons and housed in small cells, where they often spend up to 24 hours a day with other prisoners, who also often have serious mental illnesses” (Shapiro 2017, p.2).

According to the plaintiff, this negligence constitutes as cruel and unusual punishment, as well as being, “in violation of the Bureau of Prisons’ own rules, which say men with serious mental illness should, in most cases, be removed from the Special Management Unit for violent prisoners at Lewisburg” (Shapiro 2017, p.3).

The lawsuit is being brought to court by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, as well as the law firm Latham and Watkins. Their complaints align with the findings of an investigation done by NPR last year, in which the heightened likelihood of inmate-on-inmate assault in Lewisburg could be attributed to the inadequate mental health care being provided: “The practice of double-cell solitary confinement — putting two men in one small cell — and the frequent use of restraints” (Shapiro 2017, p.5).

Stacey Litner, advocacy director of the D.C. Prisoners’ Rights Project, said of the lawsuit’s claims, People who arrived at Lewisburg with medications they got at other prisons were taken off with little or no explanation. They can’t get access to the therapy they are desperately seeking. When they tell staff they are suicidal, there is no recourse” (Shapiro 2017, p.12).

Lewisburg implements something called the “Special Management Unit,” intended for inmates the Bureau of Prisons defines as, “dangerously violent, confrontational, defiant, [and] antagonistic” (Shapiro 2017, p.10). The SMU presently operates as a 12-month program.

In 2014, the Bureau of Prisons declared that men with a serious mental illness did not belong in the Special Management Unit, intended for dangerous prisoners. This lawsuit claims that Lewisburg circumvented this policy because, around the time it was put in place, inmates were being taken off their medication and given lesser diagnoses.

One such inmate, Andra Gray, had been treated for schizophrenia and depression at other facilities, but when he arrived at Lewisburg, he was taken off his medication. When he asked for counseling, “he was given the self-help packets, with puzzles and coloring-book pages, instead” (Shapiro 2017, p.21).

Said Gray, “They give you a book and say color this or draw this picture or cross this word out, because it’s usually sudokus and Word Search. You’re not thinking about searching a word out. You’re thinking about, you know, life or death. So how do a word or a puzzle help you, at that point?”

For more information on this topic, please read, “Lawsuit Says Lewisburg Prison Counsels Prisoners With Crossword Puzzles.”


Shapiro, J. (2017, June 15). Lawsuit Says Lewisburg Prison Counsels Prisoners With Crossword Puzzles. Retrieved July 06, 2017, from http://www.npr.org/2017/06/15/532796528/lawsuit-says-lewisburg-prison-counsels-prisoners-with-crossword-puzzles

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