by Jo Ellen Nott
In early January 2023, five prisoners escaped from the U.S. Penitentiary in Thomson, Illinois, according to the union representing the prison’s guards. Local 4070 of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) said all five were recaptured by January 13, 2023. But Local President Jon Zumkehr blamed Warden Thomas Bergami for allegedly leaving critical posts vacant and demanded his removal by the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).
AFGE has been calling for Bergami’s head for some time over alleged sexual assaults guards have suffered, which occur when the lockup’s maximum-security prisoners expose themselves or masturbate in front of them. In the three years ending in 2022, there were 1,827 such incidents, the union said. It did not address allegations that guards set up prisoners for altercations, feeding an over-use of punitive solitary confinement.
Zumkehr said the incidents dropped off in 2021, after the union implemented protective measures. But he said those measures were phased when Bergami took over in March 2022. By July 2022, the union was calling for the warden’s head. By November 2022, Zumkehr said sexual assaults had tripled. He also blamed Bergami’s lack of leadership when a guard said her hands and feet went numb that month after handling prisoner mail that allegedly contained synthetic drugs. So far in 2023, Zumkehr said some 50 contraband cellphones had been confiscated from prisoners, pointing to a smuggling problem, though not one that appeared connected to the union’s other demand: installing scanners in BOP prison mailrooms.
A local news station took the guards’ complaints at face value and contacted BOP to ask what was being done to protect them. BOP staff responded in an email citing three measures: identifying cell doors of prisoners who engage in sexual acts; reducing the frequency that guards are exposed to those prisoners; and directing guards to employee assistance programs and training sessions about the disciplinary measures available for sexual misconduct by prisoners.
Zumkehr countered that the measures are largely ineffective, inviting BOP leadership to visit the prison to speak directly to guards. In support of them, AFGE Council of Prison Locals National President Shane Fausey demanded BOP install a $45 million “mail guard” scanning system to intercept drugs in letters. “Before an employee is seriously injured or killed, we call upon the senior leadership of the BOP to immediately intervene in the toxic leadership of USP Thomson and effectively protect the employees, by any means necessary,” Fausey said.
Due to the sexual encounters, Zumkehr says that guards are suffering from mental health problems and stress-reduced illness. “These incidents have contributed greatly to the prison’s difficulties in recruiting and retaining correctional officers and staff, which results in overworked employees and increased costs for taxpayers,” Zumkehr warned. “Left uncorrected, [prisoners] become emboldened and often escalate their actions directed at staff to more violent levels.”
Besides using more solitary confinement to penalize prisoners who engage in inappropriate sexual conduct toward guards, the union is demanding additional resources for victimized employees. Meanwhile BOP said it continues to investigate why USP Thomson has become one of its deadliest prisons.
Sources: KLJB, KWQC
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