Lawmakers call for federal investigation into Thomson Prison over deaths of seven prisoners; allegations of abuse


Lawmakers are calling for a federal investigation by the Department of Justice into USP Thomson following the deaths of seven inmates in two years and ongoing allegations of abuse, including the continued overuse of solitary confinement by correctional officers.

U.S. Senators Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill.; Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; and U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Moline; referenced a report published May 31 by The Marshall Project and NPR that describes correctional officers intentionally pairing inmates together who are known to attack each other; staff encouraging assaults against sex offenders and informants; abusive shackling that leaves scars known as the “Thomson tattoo,” often in a room known as the “torture room,” where men would lie 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 Bureau of Prisons (BOP); and an incident in which staff allegedly laughed and joked 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.

The federal prison in Thomson, Ill., currently houses 929 inmates: 797 in the maximum security facility and 132 at the adjacent minimum security camp.

“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 a news release. “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.”

In a joint letter sent June 1 to U.S. Inspector General Michael Horowitz, the lawmakers demanded immediate action. 

“We respectfully request that your office immediately open an investigation into allegations included in a disturbing report published by NPR and the Marshall Project concerning the deaths of seven incarcerated men and serious abuses by staff at the United States Penitentiary Thomson in Illinois,” they wrote. “Five of the deaths were reportedly the result of homicides by fellow Special Management Unit (SMU) residents; the remaining two were suicides.”

AFGE Local 4070 President Jonathan Zumkehr declined Thursday to comment on the investigation. 

“I’m not aware of any of these incidents happening,” Zumkehr 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.”

Durbin also asked the OIG to investigate the role that staffing shortages may have played in contributing to the deaths and alleged incidents of abuse. 

In addition to the investigation, Durbin 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. Nearly 8 percent of BOP inmates are housed in a form of restricted housing.

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June 2, 2022 at 04:38PM

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