Illinois representatives call for federal investigation into incidents, allegations at Thomson prison

Published: Jun. 2, 2022 at 2:19 PM CDT
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WASHINGTON D.C. (KWQC) - Illinois lawmakers have written a letter to the Justice Department’s Inspector General, calling for an immediate federal investigation into inmate deaths and allegations of staff abuse at United States Penitentiary Thomson.

U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and lead co-sponsor of the “First Step Act;” U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill.; and U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill.-17, all wrote a letter to the Department of Justice.

In the letter, the lawmakers cited a report published by NPR and The Marshall Project which detailed the deaths of seven incarcerated men and allegations of abuses by staff at the prison.

“If these reports prove accurate, they describe conduct that would almost certainly contravene numerous BOP policies, as well as infringing the civil rights of individuals in BOP custody and possibly violating federal criminal statutes,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter.

Some of the more serious allegations in the report include encouraging assaults against sex offenders, leaving men shackled to a bed in their own waste without food or water and staff purposefully encouraging tensions between cellmates.

On Thursday, Durbin announced the Senate Judiciary Committee will soon hold a hearing on the continued overuse of solitary confinement and restricted housing in federal prisons such as the Thomson prison.

About 7.8% of Bureau of Prisons inmates are in a form of restricted housing, Durbin said.

Durbin, Duckworth and Bustos have also addressed the staffing issues at USP Thomson and at other federal prisons across the U.S.

In response to the letter, AFGE LOCAL 4070 President Jon Zumkehr with USP Thomson said, “We cannot comment on an ongoing investigation, but we have been fighting to fully staff USP Thomson.”

“We are currently short 105 staff members, including 78 from custody. We are committed to fully staff USP Thomson and we have hosted monthly job fairs to bring new staff to USP Thomson.”

Read the full letter from the lawmakers below.

June 1, 2022

Dear Inspector General Horowitz:

We respectfully request that your office immediately open an investigation into allegations included in a disturbing report published by NPR and the Marshall Project[1] concerning the deaths of seven incarcerated men and serious abuses by staff at the United States Penitentiary Thomson (USP Thomson) in Illinois.

Five of the deaths were reportedly the result of homicides by fellow Special Management Unit (SMU) residents; the remaining two were suicides. The article’s most serious allegations include:

  • Staff purposefully stoking tensions between cellmates and intentionally pairing men whom they knew would attack each other;
  • Staff encouraging assaults against sex offenders and informants and falsely telling residents that a particular man was a sex offender, resulting in repeated physical and sexual assaults against him;
  • Abusive shackling leaving scars known as “the Thomson tattoo,” sometimes in a room known as “the dungeon” or “the torture room,” where men would lie shackled to a bed for hours in their own urine and feces without food or water;
  • The continuation of abusive behavior towards incarcerated persons after the SMU was transferred to USP Thomson;
  • Punishment (often by shackling) of men who refused to be housed with cellmates whom they believed would kill them;
  • The highest rate of pepper-spray usage in the Bureau of Prisons (BOP); and
  • Staff laughing and joking at the expense of a Jewish man they were guarding as he lay dying in a hospital following an assault that occurred after staff placed him in a recreation cage with known white supremacists.

If these reports prove accurate, they describe conduct that would almost certainly contravene numerous BOP policies, as well as infringing the civil rights of individuals in BOP custody and possibly violating federal criminal statutes.

The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) is responsible for protecting the integrity of Department of Justice components, including BOP, as well as the health and safety of the people in BOP custody. The NPR and Marshall Project report raises serious and troubling allegations about the conduct of staff at USP Thomson.

As such, it is imperative that you investigate the allegations detailed in the NPR and Marshall Project report, as well as any other allegations of abusive or dangerous conditions at USP Thomson that arise in the course of your investigation. In particular, we request that your investigation include the role that staffing shortages may have played in giving rise to the conditions in which the deaths and alleged abuses occurred. We have long fought to address the staffing crisis at USP Thomson and throughout BOP, repeatedly warning that failure to do so could result in catastrophe. We are deeply troubled that these warnings seem to have proved accurate.

Thank you for your consideration of this request. We look forward to your prompt response.

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