Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Pittsburgh synagogue shooting jury offered glimpses of shooter’s life in prison

A white cinderblock wall prison cell with a made bed and three paper shopping bags on a metal table.
U.S District Court Western District Of Pennsylvania
Robert Bowers' current cell at Butler County prison.

Prisoners get only two 15-minute phone calls per month. They are confined alone for 23 hours each day to a concrete cell with a steel door, where they must eat all of their meals and can flush their toilet only twice per hour. When they are let out for an hour for recreation, they remain by themselves. They are not allowed to have a job and don’t have normal access to the general commissary. Their only visits occur through a glass window while speaking on a phone.

That’s what the rest of Robert Bowers’ life would be like if he is held in the highest-security ward of the highest-security prison in the federal system, ADX Florence in Colorado, according to testimony from defense witness Maureen Baird.

Baird has worked in the prison system for more than 30 years, including as a warden of a prison in New York and a regional administrator for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. She testified on Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning via Zoom during Bowers’ trial in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh.

Bowers was convicted of shooting and killing 11 Jewish worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in 2018, and jurors who convicted him are currently hearing testimony intended to help them decide whether he should be sentenced to death or life in prison without parole.

Prosecutors are seeking a death sentence. Defense lawyers, however, hope that Baird’s testimony would provide evidence that the alternative to the death penalty would also be a severe punishment for Bowers.

WESA Inbox Edition Newsletter

Start your morning with today's news on Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania.

Around 328 prisoners are housed at ADX, the majority of whom were placed there because of violent acts while in other prisons and may work their way out through good behavior, Baird testified. But about 10% of the prisoners there are placed there because of an administrative designation.

Given Bowers’ notoriety and potential risk of being attacked at another high security prison, he likely would be placed at ADX, although Baird said she could not be certain about that. Baird said she spoke with a lawyer currently working at ADX who is familiar with the current prisoners at ADX and told her that he believed Bowers would likely be placed at ADX, although he wouldn’t be the one to make that decision.

But according to testimony elicited from Baird during cross-examinations by prosecutors, Bowers’ life as an inmate at ADX could be very different from the stark image elicited by his attorneys. He would have access to 60 TV channels in his cell, including CNN, ESPN and potentially MTV, where he could watch “Ridiculousness,” one of his favorite programs. He could be placed in a cell with its own shower and would have access to psychological treatment.

There would be bingo contests, art contests and essay contests where he could win protein bar prizes. He could participate in a chess program, wellness classes or the most popular class — “Seven Habits of Effective Individuals.” Bowers would be able to sell artwork he creates in a local program and earn $50 per piece, although his name would not be attached to his work. Plans are underway for prisoners at ADX to have tablets with games and podcasts, and even a pet fish in their cells, according to prosecutors.

In addition, Bowers could earn his way into a section of the prison reserved for inmates age 50 and older, where he could receive 20 hours of recreation per week and would be able to interact with seven other prisoners during his recreation time.

Bowers also could appeal many of the decisions about where he is placed and what type of special restrictions he will face. So even if he was placed under the highest restrictions at first, Baird acknowledged, he might later be assigned to a different part of the prison or even a different prison.

On Wednesday, officials from the Butler County prison — where Bowers has been held since shortly after the synagogue shooting — testified that he has been a model prisoner who is polite, keeps his room tidy and follows directions consistently.

Bowers is currently kept in his cell for 20-22 hours per day and is allowed out only by himself, the prison officials said. He may choose to exercise, but he instead chooses to watch TV. He showers every other day and shaves on the days when he doesn’t shower. He sometimes jokes with correctional officers who supervise him, including about his beliefs about illegal immigration, but he usually watches TV without commenting, they said.

Defense lawyers showed a photograph of Bowers’ cell, which contained a made bed, a combined toilet and sink, and three paper shopping bags containing his possessions, such as papers and undergarments. Bowers also has access to a tablet in his cell to listen to preapproved podcasts, play games and sometimes call family members — calls which are supervised or reviewed.

Some corrections officials refer to Bowers as “Uncle Bob,” according to Capt. Jeffrey Kengerski, who supervises the portion of the prison where Bowers is held.

“It's like having your uncle on the unit,” Kengerski testified. “He’s never been a problem, always been compliant.”

Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.