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BOP Closes Deadliest Unit

by Chuck Sharman

On February 14, 2023, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) announced it was closing Special Management Unit (SMU) at the U.S. Penitentiary (USP) in Thomson, Illinois, where seven deaths have been recorded since it opened in 2019, the highest death toll in any BOP facility.

Some 350 prisoners housed there were slated for transfer to other lockups, after they were gathered from prisons around the country to be punished with lengthy periods of isolation for disciplinary infractions.

The unit replaced an earlier one at Pennsylvania’s USP-Lewisburg that ironically closed for similar reasons. Staff was accused of violating prisoners’ civil rights almost since it opened in 2008. Lawsuits alleged that mentally ill prisoners were denied mental health care and punished with restraints. At least four prisoners were murdered by cellmates between 2010 and 2017. The Office of the Inspector General for BOP’s parent agency, the federal Department of Justice, criticized the mental health treatment, and the D.C. Corrections Information Council found in 2017 that the use of restraints resulted in prisoner injuries.

Much of the problem was blamed on double-celling violent prisoners, which continued at USP-Thomson’s SMU. Prisoners there have also been kept for long periods in isolation and punished in shackles that scarred them with the “Thomson tattoo.” Staff was also accused of using excessive force – the lockup has BOP’s highest rate of pepper-spray use – and “outing” sex offenders, putting them at increased risk of assaults that guards couldn’t or didn’t prevent.

Staffers pointed fingers at each other even before the closing was announced, with guards calling for Warden Thomas Bergami’s head for leaving 100 guard vacancies unfilled and allowing 275 incidents in 2022 when frustrated and bored prisoners suffering mental illness – surprise! – exposed themselves to guards or masturbated in front of them. The closing leaves behind seven tombstones.

Matthew Phillips, 31, was allegedly beaten and stomped on March 2, 2020, by fellow prisoners Brandon C. “Whitey” Simonson, 37, and Kristopher S. “No Luck” Martin, 39. Both reportedly are Valhalla Bound Skinheads gang members who targeted their victim because he was Jewish. Phillips, who was convicted in 2014 for heroin-trafficking in Austin, died in an Indiana hospital three days later. Simonson and Martin were indicted for his second-degree murder and a hate crime in December 2021 and are awaiting trial. The dead prisoner’s parents, Susan and Jeffrey Phillips, are suing the government for guards’ deliberate indifference to his risk of assault when they allegedly placed him in a recreation cage with known white supremacists. They are aided by attorneys from Spangenberg Shibley & Liber LLP in Cleveland and Romanucci & Blandin, LLC in Chicago. See: Phillips v. United States, USDC (N.D.Ill.), Case No. 1:22-cv-01048.

Edsel Aaron Badoni, 37, died on November 27, 2020, from injuries sustained in a fight with an unnamed fellow prisoner. The Arizonan was serving 14 years for an assault on the Navajo Nation Reservation where he was from.

Boyd Weekley,49, was found hanged on December 3, 2020. He was serving a life sentence for stealing a car from a South Dakota priest and driving to Michigan, where he kidnapped a boy and sexually abused him for two weeks in 1995. His death was initially reported in the general population at the prison; later it was called a suspected SMU homicide.

Patrick Bacon, 36, was found unresponsive in his cell and died at a hospital on December 18, 2020, just over two months after arriving at USP-Thomson. He was serving 10 years for a California assault. His death was ruled a suicide, according to his mother, Shelly Bacon.

Shay Paniri, 41, was fatally stabbed on February 28, 2021. He was serving a 17-and-a-half-year sentence for a drug-trafficking conspiracy in California. His now-released cellmate, Javier Gonzalez-Valenzuela, 47, was indicted for second-degree murder on May 23, 2023. See: United States v. Gonzalez-Valenzuela, USDC (N.D.Ill.), Case No. 3:23-cr-50021.

Bobby “AJ” Everson, 36, was allegedly killed by cellmate Donta Maddox, 44, on December 15, 2021. Everson was near the end of a 10-year sentence for drug and weapons crimes when he was fatally bludgeoned. Maddox was indicted for first-degree murder in October 2022 and is awaiting trial. See: United States v. Maddox, USDC (N.D.Ill.), Case No. 3:22-cr-50058.

James Everett, 35, was found unresponsive and pronounced dead on March 15, 2022. He was serving 15 years for assaulting a federal law enforcement officer. Homicide is suspected in the death. His corpse was returned to his family with a “Thomson tattoo” on each wrist.

Additional sources: Arizona Republic, Bloomington Pantagraph, KWQC, Law&Crime, The Marshall Project, New York Times, NPR, Quad-City Times, Shaw Local News, WQAD