Union pushes for change after USP Thomson workers exposed to drugs in mail

Published: Mar. 21, 2022 at 6:53 PM CDT
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THOMSON, Illinois (KWQC) - The union representing USP Thomson employees is asking for drug detection equipment and better worker incentives. According to the union, in the last few weeks, an inmate was found dead, and two prison workers have been exposed to drugs through mail sent to inmates.

In a media release, the Federal Bureau of Prisons said the housing unit officer was sorting inmate mail in his assigned housing unit when symptoms began. This was treated as an exposure as the inmate mail tested positive for amphetamines.

USP houses 942 male offenders according to the prison’s website.

AFGE local 4070 says the incidents may have been prevented if the prison was fully staffed.

“The officer was working in a housing unit and he was exposed to a drug. It was in the mail and it tested positive for amphetamines,” said Jon Zumkehr, AFGE local 4070 union president.

The incident comes just three weeks after another officer at USP Thomson was hospitalized for synthetic drugs exposure, Zumkehr said. The prison is in need of additional staff in the mailroom and throughout the institution.

“It scares you because you have your staff in the hospital because someone is sending drugs in the mail,” said Zumkehr, “We as a union implore the agency and local management to return the search/shake down teams that were eliminated due to staffing cuts. These teams are essential in helping eliminate dangerous contraband, to include illegal drugs within the institution.”

According to the union, USP Thomson is currently short 75 correctional officers and 10 medical positions.

“You don’t know what you’re dealing with. If you’re dealing with a little bit of quantity, if you’re dealing with a lot of quantity and it’s not just stuff on paper, there’s also stuff that staff inhales. So, we have the PPE and gloves for the staff but you never know if you open a letter up if there is a powder inside and you inhale it,” Zumkehr said.

The union is also asking for scanners in the mailroom to detect illegal drugs sent to inmates.

‘For example an ion scanner. It’s no different when you go to the airport they swab your laptop. If we had that in the mailroom they could be swabbing the pieces of mail and the packages coming in for drugs,” Zumkehr said.

The prison is making progress. The union says last year the facility was short over 150 positions and using nurses and counselors as correctional officers to fill the gap. However, AFGE 4070 says it’s still a long way away from making sure workers and inmates are safe from drugs.

“It’s just going to take a lot of work to get to where we need to be at,” Zumkehr said.

According to the union, the workers were transported to a local hospital and later released. An autopsy is pending on the inmate’s death.

The union has held several job fairs but says they struggle to hire and retain staff because of low pay, mandatory overtime, and a lack of housing and childcare in the area.

Senator Dick Durbin (D) released a statement to TV6 saying, “Everyone deserves to have a safe workplace, and I hope these employees recover quickly and fully. I urge the BOP to take these incidents seriously, as I do. In Congress, I’ve been working diligently with my colleagues on the needs of BOP. I will continue to listen to USP Thompson administrators and union representatives, and advocate for the needs of that facility, its employees, and its incarcerated population.”

Congresswoman Cheri Bustos (D) also responded stating, “The recent hospitalization of two officers at USP Thomson due to drug exposure is deeply concerning. The health and safety of these officers is paramount, and must be balanced with timely access to mail by incarcerated persons. It is imperative that the Federal Burau of Prisons ensures that safety measures and protocols are in place to protect officers from improper exposure to narcotics while screening the mail. As proper staffing is an essential component of safety at the prison, including in narcotic mitigation, I’ll continue to fight to get Thomson fully staffed.”

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