Pittsburgh synagogue shooter could earn more privileges in supermax prison, expert says


A federal prison expert who testified Wednesday about harsh conditions Robert Bowers could expect at the Bureau of Prisons’ only super-maximum security facility if he receives a life sentence said Thursday during cross-examination that he also could earn privileges for good behavior.

That could mean more phone calls, recreation and out-of-cell time.

It also could mean getting to play bingo and trivia and make and sell art.

Maureen Baird, who retired as a federal prison warden in 2016 after a 27-year career, was called by Bowers’ defense attorneys to describe the conditions he might face if the jury does not sentence him to death.

Bowers, 50, of Baldwin, was found guilty on June 16 of killing 11 congregants at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, which housed Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha, Dor Hadash and New Light congregations.

The victims included Rose Mallinger, 97; Bernice Simon, 84, and her husband, Sylvan Simon, 86; brothers David Rosenthal, 54, and Cecil Rosenthal, 59; Dan Stein, 71; Irving Younger, 69; Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, 66; Joyce Fienberg, 75; Melvin Wax, 87; and Richard Gottfried, 65.

Last week, the case moved into the sentence-selection phase. Jurors must decide whether Bowers should be sentenced to the death penalty or life in prison with no chance for release.

A death sentence must be unanimous.

In her initial testimony on Wednesday, Baird painted a picture of a solitary life at the prison bureau’s ADX, or administrative maximum-security prison, in Florence, Colo. She said that Bowers would only be out of his cell one to two hours per day, and even during recreation, he’d be in a locked cage by himself. He would eat all of his meals in his single cell, and phone calls and visits would be limited and highly regulated.

But on cross-examination Thursday by Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicole Vasquez Schmitt, Baird admitted there are step-down programs at ADX that allow inmates to earn additional privileges.

She said inmates at ADX are permitted to have books and magazines and photos in their cell, as well as approved materials for hobbies and crafts.

There is even a creative arts program in which inmates who make art can have it sold at a local center, with a chance of earning up to 50% of the sale price up to $100.

In the future, Baird said, inmates at ADX are expected to get electronic tablets with games, music and programming on them.

Baird said providing activities and resources for inmates contributes to institutional security.

“It’s really for the safety of staff,” she said. “If inmates have something to occupy their time, it makes staff safer.”

As Schmitt began her cross-examination, she called into question Baird’s qualifications to talk about ADX. She noted that Baird had never worked there, only ever classified two inmates to serve time there more than a decade ago and hadn’t been to the facility until she was working on the Bowers case and took a tour.

Baird also told the jury about a high-security, adult alternative housing program at ADX for inmates 50 and older. In that program, participants can have recreation with up to seven other inmates and have up to five phone calls per month and be eligible for email.

According to statistics introduced by the prosecution, ADX can hold as many as 563 inmates and has a current population of 328.

Of those, only 10% were direct commitments, meaning they were classified by the Bureau of Prisons to serve their sentences there. The rest were moved there after committing acts of violence while incarcerated at other federal facilities.

Throughout cross-examination, Vasquez Schmitt attempted to show the jury that Baird could not be sure that Bowers would even be ordered to ADX.

On direct examination, Baird said that based on the religious hate crime Bowers committed, as well as the widespread media attention his case has received, ADX is the only facility where he could be safely housed.

She repeated that statement on Thursday.

“In my opinion, Bowers cannot be held safely in the general population of another facility,” Baird said. “He would have to go to the ADX.”

But according to Vasquez Schmitt, the Bureau of Prisons has a central inmate monitoring system that tracks things such as widespread publicity.

In the entire federal prison system, there are 228 inmates with that classification and only 18 of them are housed at ADX, the prosecutor said.

On Wednesday, Baird described ADX’s most restrictive unit, H unit, to the jury. But on cross-examination, she admitted that the only inmates held there are ones who have been designated by the U.S. Attorney General to require special security measures for inmates who pose ongoing security threats.

Baird said she did not know if those would apply to Bowers. Later in her testimony, though, she noted that those restrictions usually come from recommendations by the U.S. Attorney’s office and federal agencies who investigated the inmate’s case.

Testimony will continue Thursday, which is the 33rd day in the Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting trial.

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