USP Lewisburg has been home to notorius criminals

Pictured is a view of USP Lewisburg from outside the wall. The prison has been home to several notorious criminals over the years. These days, it operates as a Special Management Unit, housing some of the worst of the worst from Federal Bureau of Prison sites across the country. Photo by Photo provided by FBOP.

Editor’s note: Staff writers Chris Brady and Paula Cochran recently spent time at USP Lewisburg as part of a media tour hosted by the warden. Several features have appeared since detailing the switch to a Special Management Unit facility. Today, Cochran takes a look back at some of the more infamous inmates that have called Lewisburg home.

LEWISBURG — USP Lewisburg has been home to many famous names and faces over the years. Some you will recognize for their infamous criminal activities, others for their positive contributions for society, while still others remain relatively unknown.

Jimmy Hoffa, who served as president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters from 1958 to 1971, was convicted of jury tampering, attempted bribery and fraud in 1964 and sentenced to 13 years in prison. He entered Lewisburg Penitentiary March 6, 1967, but was pardoned by President Richard Nixon in 1971. Upon his release, he received a $1.7 million lump sum pension from the Teamster’s Union. Last seen in July 1975, he disappeared outside Maschus Red Fox restaurant in Detroit, Mich. To this day, many theories, conspiracy and otherwise, abound as to his fate.

Prohibition-era bootlegger Al Capone amassed a fortune selling alcohol by ensuring that any customer who bought alcohol from another source was summarily executed. Capone is best remembered for his orchestration of one of the most violent and gruesome gang-related killings in history, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of February 14, 1929.

Elliot Ness, along with a team of 11 members of the Justice Department, made arresting Al Capone their lifelong professional goal. Ness would later relay the experience in his book “The Untouchables.”

Unable to convict him of murder, Capone was charged with 21 counts of income tax evasion in June 1931. He was found guilty on five counts and sentenced to five years in prison and a $50,000 fine. On May 3, 1932, Capone entered Atlanta Penitentiary, was transferred to Alcatraz two years later, then transferred twice more before landing in Lewisburg, where he would stay until his parole in 1939. Capone died of syphilis on January 25, 1947.

Henry Hill, the mobster who inspired the novel “Wise Guys” and the film “Goodfellas,” dreamt of becoming a mobster since the tender age of 12. His dreams were realized after meeting Paul Vario, a member of a prominent New York City crime family. Though he could not be “made” due to his Irish ancestry, that did not stop Hill from delving into a life of crime. In 1972, he received a 10-year sentence for assault and extortion after beating up a gambler whose sister happened to be connected with the FBI.

Though he served less than five years of his sentence, some of it at Lewisburg, doing time offered him the opportunity to make many more mafia contacts. Shortly after his parole, Hill became instrumental in planning the largest theft in the United States, the Lufthansa Air Heist, resulting in the theft of $5.85 million in cash and jewels. In the aftermath of the heist, Hill became a government witness and enrolled in the Witness Protection Program with his wife and two children in 1980. His testimony brought down some of New York’s most feared mobsters, including his friend Paul Vario.

Because of his inability to retain his cover, he was expelled from the program two years after he entered. He has continued his life of crime and has been arrested multiple times for assault, narcotics, possession of drug paraphernalia, DUI and methamphetamine.

Bayard Rustin’s crime was following his pacifist instincts and refusing to serve in the armed forces. Active in the civil rights movement, Rustin was influenced by Henry David Thorou and Mahatma Ghandi’s practice of non-violent resistance and civil disobedience. His refusal to serve in the Armed Forces resulted in his arrest on Jan. 12, 1944, landing him a three-year sentence at Lewisburg. While serving his sentence, he continued his work by protesting segregated seating in the dining hall. In a letter to Warden E. G. Hagerman, Rustin wrote, “Both morally and practically, segregation is to me a basic injustice. Since I believe it to be so, I must attempt to remove it. There are three ways in which one can deal with an injustice. One can accept it without protest. One can seek to avoid it. One can resist the injustice non-violently. To accept it is to perpetuate it.”

After Rustin’s release from prison in June 1946, he helped to plan the Journey of Reconciliation, a bus trip to the south intended to test a Supreme Court ruling declaring segregation in interstate travel unconstitutional. For his participation, he was found guilty of violating the Jim Crow bus law and sentenced to 30 days on a chain gang.

Along with Martin Luther King, Rustin formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1963, Rustin served as chief organizer for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. His appointment as organizer was controversial because of his imprisonment for refusing to fight in the armed forces, as well as his homosexual acts. His past was used in a smear campaign by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who had somehow taken a photograph of Rustin talking to King while he was taking a bath.  Rumors circulated that the former draft dodger and homosexual was having an improper relationship with King. Despite these stories, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, held Aug. 28, 1963, was a great success, with over a quarter-million people in attendance. King, the final speaker, made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the event.

In 1965, Rustin joined the Phillip Randolph Institute, a civil rights organization where he worked until 1978. He continued his activism by protesting against the Vietnam War and in support of gay rights. Bayard Rustin died Aug. 24, 1987.

Alger Hiss earned his law degree from Harvard in 1929, was a clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, served in the Roosevelt administration, was Roosevelt’s advisor at the 1945 Yalta conference, secretary general of the United Nations and in 1949 became president of the Carnegie Endowment for International peace. After being accused of espionage on behalf of the Soviet government, he vehemently denied under oath that he had been involved in any form of espionage. Though never tried for espionage due to the statute of limitations, a grand jury indicted him on two counts of perjury for lying under oath regarding his status as a Soviet spy. After two trials, he was found guilty on both counts of perjury, which resulted in two five-year sentences to be served back to back at Lewisburg. 

Hiss spent the entirety of his life trying to clear his name after his release from prison in 1954, though doubt exists to this day as to whether he is guilty or innocent.

Staff Writer Paula Cochran can be reached for comment at

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