Inmate’s death 4 months before release raises questions about federal penitentiary

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LEWISBURG, Penn. (PIX11) -- It took more than three hours to drive to the U.S. Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania from metropolitan New York, but PIX11 Investigates was seeking answers for a family in Newark, New Jersey.

On the Monday after Easter Sunday, Denise Spencer of Newark was notified her younger brother was found dead in his cell the night before.
Renell Wooten was 39 years old.

He was four months away from coming home, after spending more than eight years in prison on a federal gun charge. Wooten’s half sisters and brother traveled to the U.S. Penitentiary in Lewisburg on Tuesday, April 7, demanding to know details on what happened.

Wooten’s older sister, Denise Spencer, quoted the assistant warden. “He said he hung himself with a sheet,” Spencer recalled the prison official saying.  “I don’t believe my brother committed suicide,” Spencer said.

Renell Wooten spent most of his federal time at the super-maximum correctional facility in Florence, Colorado.

Many of the inmates there have disciplinary problems, and Wooten was one of the prisoners transferred to the Special Management Unit in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania in August 2014.

Most of the inmates in Lewisburg are “double celled” and spend 23 hours a day in lockdown with another prisoner, in a very small space.
Wooten’s relatives said he started writing despairing letters in the fall.

“I am constantly under attack,” Wooten wrote in a December 5, 2014 letter to his niece.  “The consequences of letting my guard down could mean I will never see my family, my sons, or know freedom.”

Wooten’s nephew, Dennis Mursier, said his uncle told him by phone that he was being set up by prison staff to get hurt. “He said they were sending inmates in the shower while he was there and putting inmates into his cell to attack him,” Mursier said.

Wooten’s niece, Jameelah Covington, who received most of the letters, cried at the notion her uncle committed suicide.   “I couldn’t believe it.  My uncle was coming home in four months.  Didn’t make no sense to me.”

Back in 2011, the U.S. Penitentiary in Lewisburg was slapped with a couple of class-action lawsuits, filed on behalf of inmates who said they were inhumanely subjected to “four point” restraints, if they resisted a particular cellmate.

“Inmates will be set up there by staff,” said paralegal Dave Sprout, who works with the Lewisburg Prison project.

PIX11 reached out this past weekend to union officials from the Council of Prison Locals # 33. Some of them had been quoted, after the Bureau of Prisons started sending inmates with disciplinary trouble to Lewisburg in 2009.

We reached Darrell Palmer, a union official, Sunday night.

When we asked him about Wooten’s death—and mentioned that Wooten had spent most of his prison time in Florence, Colorado—Palmer responded, “He had to be violent inside the prison, for him to be in Florence and then end up in Lewisburg,” Palmer said. “That’s where we put the worst of the worst.”

Wooten was getting so fearful he admitted he was starting to get paranoid, and he printed letters to President Obama stating his troubles started in Florence, Colorado. He filed a formal complaint with federal court in January in North Carolina, where he was originally convicted.  The matter was moved to federal court in the middle district of Pennsylvania, where Lewisburg is located.

Dave Sprout noted there was a three day incident at Lewisburg in mid-February, where inmates were covering the windows on their cells, because they were upset about a new policy banning razors for shaving.    He said corrections officers took action.  “Shoot them with tear gas, pepper balls, flash grenades,” Sprout said.

On March 25,  one Lewisburg inmate assaulted his cellmate so badly that the injured prisoner was taken to an outside medical facility. The prison issued a statement that the FBI was investigating. “We heard that he was brain dead,” Dave Sprout remarked Monday about the prisoner.

Renell Wooten was reported dead a little more than a week later, on Easter Sunday, April 5.

Prison officials were not happy when PIX11 Investigates showed up unexpectedly on the outskirts of the U.S. Penitentiary on Monday this week.   One unidentified man stopped his SUV, wearing a polo shirt with a BOP logo, and made some calls to report we were by the prison sign.

He blocked us from leaving, until some other unidentified prison employees turned up. Finally, the prison spokesperson, Shawn Barlett, drove up and spoke to us. He asked PIX11 News to e-mail him our questions.

Barlett responded with a statement Tuesday afternoon:

I can confirm Mr. Wooten was found unresponsive in his cell on April 5, 2015.  Staff immediately performed life saving measures.  Mr. Wooten was pronounced dead by local emergency services personnel who responded to the incident.  Autopsy results indicated the cause of death to be "death by hanging."  Mr. Wooten's death remains under investigation by the FBI.

All inmate arrivals to USP Lewisburg are screened by Psychology Services staff.  Inmates have constant access to staff to address any concerns or issues they may have.

There was a press release on March 25, 2015, in which I believe you are referencing.  During this incident, an inmate was assaulted by his cell mate.  As a result, one inmate required outside medical attention.  This incident is also under investigation by the FBI.  As a matter of routine, all serious inmate assaults are referred to the FBI for investigation.

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