June 02, 2022

Durbin, Duckworth, Bustos Call for Immediate Federal Investigation into Inmate Deaths, Allegations of Staff Abuses at USP Thomson

In a letter to the Justice Department’s Inspector General, the lawmakers cite a new disturbing report concerning the deaths of seven incarcerated men and allegations of serious abuses by staff at the Illinois federal prison

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and lead cosponsor of the First Step Act; U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL); and U.S. Representative Cheri Bustos (D-IL-17) are calling on the Department of Justice (DOJ) Inspector General to immediately open an investigation into allegations concerning a Bureau of Prison (BOP) facility in Thomson, Illinois.  In a letter to Inspector General Michael Horowitz, the lawmakers cite a disturbing new report published by NPR and the Marshall Project that details the deaths of seven incarcerated men and allegations of serious abuses by staff at the United States Penitentiary Thomson (USP Thomson).

“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.  “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.”

Durbin, Duckworth, and Bustos went on to outline some of the report’s most serious allegations, including: staff purposefully stoking tensions between cellmates, encouraging assaults against sex offenders and informants, and leaving men shackled to a bed for hours in their own urine and feces without food or water; the highest rate of pepper-spray usage in the BOP; and staff laughing at the expense of a Jewish man they were guarding as he lay dying following an assault that occurred after staff placed him in a recreation cage with known white supremacists.

The lawmakers continued, “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.”

In addition to calling for this federal investigation, Durbin today announced that the Senate Judiciary Committee will soon hold a hearing on the continued overuse of solitary confinement and restricted housing in federal prison facilities, including USP Thomson.  Currently, approximately 7.8 percent of BOP inmates are housed in a form of restricted housing.

Durbin, Duckworth, and Bustos have long fought to address the staffing crisis at USP Thomson and throughout BOP.  In April 2021, the lawmakers sent a letter to then-BOP Director Michael Carvajal and Acting Director of OPM Kathleen McGettigan urging the administrators to support USP Thomson’s request for a 25 percent retention bonus for nearly all staff, which the lawmakers had been advocating for since 2020.  That funding was successfully secured five months later.

Further, as Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Durbin has prioritized oversight of BOP facilities.  In April 2021, the Committee held a BOP oversight hearing with then-Director Carvajal to address chronic understaffing issues and other concerns.  After Bureau leadership’s failure to address concerns raised at the hearing, such as their failure to implement critical reforms under the First Step Act, and following an Associated Press investigation that found BOP is a “hotbed of abuse, graft and corruption, and has turned a blind eye to employees accused of misconduct,” Durbin called on Attorney General Garland to dismiss Director Carvajal.  Carvajal’s resignation was announced less than two months later.

Full text of the letter to Inspector General Horowitz is available here and 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.

  

Sincerely,

 

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