TV6 Investigates: Lawmakers call for federal investigation into deaths, alleged abuse at USP Thomson

Published: Jun. 14, 2022 at 6:08 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

THOMSON, Ill. (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.

Shawanna Edwards’s husband Jackie has been incarcerated at USP Thomson since March 2022. She says she last heard from her husband on April 13. She says her husband was assaulted by USP Thomson prison staff the next day.

“It’s frightening. It’s horrible when you don’t know about your loved one. It’s horrible and you can’t sleep at night. You worry about being the next person who loses a loved one [at USP Thomson],” said Shawanna, “I got a phone call on April 14 from another inmate stating that I needed to get down here and bring an attorney because my husband was assaulted by a correctional officer. They put him in 4-point restraints, took him to an interrogation room, and from there they assaulted him.”

Shawanna says she’s sent multiple emails and made calls to USP Thomson asking about her husband’s well-being, but without a response.

“Today [April 13] makes 58 days since he’s been in segregation. The prison has not told me anything about his well-being, his health, or the situation at hand,” said Shawanna.

“It’s frustrating all the way around. Not only for her, especially for her, but for me as well. I’ve never had this type of experience dealing with a prison state or federal in just trying to set up an attorney visit,” said Jim Falvey, Shawanna’s attorney.

Falvey said he sent a letter to the prison detailing his request to meet with his client on May 18 and has not received any response from the prison.

“It’s extraordinary that I’ve had this difficulty - this much difficulty, getting in touch with my client,” said Falvey, “I have never run into this type of a roadblock before. A brick wall, really.”

Jackie Edwards is not the only inmate to allege abuse inside USP Thomson prison walls. A report by the Marshall Project found the US Penitentiary has become one of the most deadly and violent federal prisons in the country, with five suspected homicides and two suicides since 2019.

The Marshall Project also found allegations of abuse like putting inmates together in cells who they suspected would attack each other, encouraging assaults against sex offenders, and shackles so tight they would leave scars known amongst those inside as “the Thomson tattoo” - all things Michelle Garza says her brother, inmate Jasper Rivera, has seen.

“It scares me, my mom, my sister, all of us. Just hearing him say he’s scared. He’s just not a scared person to begin with so to hear him say that, that worries me more for his safety,” said Garza.

Union leaders for Thomson prison workers say understaffing has plagued the facility for years.

‘It’s probably the most understaffed in the bureau, if not the second most understaffed in the bureau,” said AFGE Local 4070 leader Jon Zumkehr.

The federal prison has been pulling nurses, counselors, and others to work as correctional officers to fill job openings.

According to Zumkehr, the prison is 78 correctional officers short.

“This year we have had 40 staff who have quit USP Thomson and another 46 who transferred to different institutions,” said Zumkehr.

The union says the prison struggles to retain employees because of pay, mandatory overtime, and a lack of housing in the area.

“The understaffing has nothing to do with the allegations,” said Zumkehr, “We fully support the investigation. We have invited the delegation to come to USP Thomson to tour and see for themselves.”

Now with lawmakers calling for a federal investigation from the justice department’s inspector general, Shawanna Edwards says she hopes other inmates can avoid the abuse her husband claims he has suffered at the prison worker’s expense.

“How about these political officials actually go visit the prison and see the inhumane conditions that these inmates are residing in? I hope for change. I want these officials that violate these inmates to be prosecuted,” said Edwards.

The Federal Bureau of Prison’s website lists Jackie Edwards’s release date as May 2, 2023, however, his wife and attorney say he was supposed to be released last month. They say USP Thomson has not told them why his release date has been extended.

TV6 reached out to the Bureau of Prisons for comment but has not received a response.

Read the full letter from the lawmakers below.

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.

Copyright 2022 KWQC. All rights reserved.