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New accounts of abuse at federal prison prompt renewed calls for investigation

The federal prison complex in Thomson, Ill. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)
Charles Rex Arbogast
The federal prison complex in Thomson, Ill. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)

Months after officials closed a violent federal prison unit in Illinois, a new report reveals more accounts of a pervasive culture of abuse inside and calls for an investigation of the officers involved.

On Thursday, the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs published a report compiling the stories of more than 120 people who were incarcerated in the Special Management Unit, a high security section of the Thomson Penitentiary about 150 miles west of Chicago.

Echoing the findings of an earlier investigation by NPR and The Marshall Project, many people described being beaten by officers while in shackles, a dangerous dearth of mental health care and a system that made it impossible to file complaints.

"We found rampant racism, and many people who were subjected to unnecessary restraint and forced to cell with another individual who was known to be dangerous," said Maggie Hart, senior counsel with the Washington Lawyers' Committee.

Five men died by suspected homicide in the Special Management Unit at Thomson.

"This is major trauma they have inflicted on people. They knew they could get away with these abuses," Hart said.

The federal Bureau of Prisons closed the unit in February after officials found "significant concerns with respect to institutional culture." Roughly 350 people were immediately sent to prisons across the country, where many of them report still being held in solitary confinement, according to the Washington Lawyers' Committee. Several guards from Thomson are now working at other federal facilities.

Transferring to other prisons made some people feel safer about coming forward: More than 25 of the individuals interviewed in the new report reached out after they were moved. Many who corresponded with attorneys while at Thomson said they suffered retaliation, such as having their property destroyed or being forced into painful shackles that left scars.

Much of the committee's findings are based on firsthand accounts that described similar abuse in detail and named many of the same guards as abusers. The Bureau of Prisons has failed to provide records from Thomson through the Freedom of Information Act, according to a complaint filed in federal court, making it harder to investigate assaults.

In an email, bureau spokesperson Emery Nelson said he could not comment on "anecdotal allegations" or individual cases, but said there were "no plans at this time" to reopen the Special Management Unit. Bureau Director Colette Peters, who took over the agency last August and decided to close the unit, said in a statement that she was committed to "swiftly" addressing misconduct.

"Allegations of employee misconduct will continue to be met with rigorous investigations and decisive action," she wrote. "A culture not representative of the agency's core values will not be tolerated."

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said "anyone who violated the civil rights of individuals incarcerated at Thomson should be held accountable."

Durbin, who with other members of the Illinois congressional delegation last year called on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate violence and abuse at the prison, praised the Bureau of Prisons' decision to close the Special Management Unit. He said he is "urging" the bureau to not reopen it in another prison.

A spokesperson for the union that represents Thomson employees declined to comment. Union officials have said in the past that the prison is dangerously understaffed and that it is guards who are frequently assaulted by incarcerated individuals.

NPR and The Marshall Project first investigated the Special Management Unit in 2016, when it was housed at a federal prison in Pennsylvania. Prison officials moved the unit to Thomson in 2018. NPR and The Marshall Project's exposé of conditions inside Thomson last year prompted a federal inquiry.

Many people who were incarcerated at Thomson told the Washington Lawyers' Committee that officers made it impossible to file complaints, by denying them the needed forms or throwing the documents in the trash. Under federal law, people in prison who accuse guards of mistreatment must go through an internal grievance process before they can sue. Even if someone was able to submit a grievance, a recent federal audit found the Bureau of Prisons is too understaffed to adequately investigate.

According to a May 2023 report from the Justice Department's inspector general, there are nearly 8,000 unresolved employee misconduct cases across all federal prisons. In another nearly 3,000 cases, misconduct has been proven — but the bureau has yet to discipline anyone involved. Nelson, the bureau spokesperson, said the Office of Internal Investigations is being restructured to increase transparency and oversight and has hired more than 50 new investigators.

Some people previously held at Thomson and their attorneys say closing the unit was not enough. Many are now calling for staff members who are accused of attacking prisoners to face criminal investigations or be fired. More than 35 staff members were named by incarcerated respondents in four or more separate violent incidents, according to the committee's report.

Theresa Raymond's son, 32-year-old Victor Gutiérrez, was the most recent man at Thomson to die. (Raymond believes he was not in the Special Management Unit.) A state medical examiner ruled his death in February a suicide.

"When I got my son's body back, there were bruises on his face, neck, stomach and arms," she said. "All I want is answers."

Darius Townsend, who spent two years in the Special Management Unit at Thomson, said that when the Bureau of Prisons director visited the unit last fall, he showed her his "Thomson tattoo" — the scars on his wrists, ankles and stomach left by tight restraints. Townsend said he was beaten by multiple guards while in shackles, as punishment for trying to file grievances against staff.

"The officer put his right knee on my chest and said, 'You're gonna be the next George Floyd.' Then he choked me and punched me in the jaw," Townsend said, in a phone call from a federal prison in Indiana. "Why are none of those officers being held accountable? They think they're above the law. It's going to continue."

Christie Thompson is a reporter for The Marshall Project. contributed to this story

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Christie Thompson, The Marshall Project
Joseph Shapiro is a NPR News Investigations correspondent.