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BOP Slammed for Prisoner Abuse in Now-Shuttered Segregation Unit at USP-Thomson in Illinois

by Douglas Ankney

A report on July 6, 2023, from the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs (WLCCR&UA) exposed abuses suffered by prisoners at the hands of Bureau of Prisons (BOP) guards while confined in the now-closed Special Management Unit (SMU) at the U.S. Penitentiary (USP) in Thomson, Illinois. The report included details of extreme physical and psychological abuse collected by 40 lawyers and legal staff.

In retaliation for writing letters to the American Civil Liberties Union and the Office of the Inspector General of the federal Department of Justice, BOP’s parent agency, guards were ordered to drag prisoner “A.S.” from his cell. The guards bent his fingers backwards, slammed his head into the ground and struck him viciously, the report noted. After strapping him down in the restraint room, they choked him and dug their nails into his eyes while wearing gloves soaked with pepper spray.

Over the next several hours guards returned to the room to tighten the restraints. As they stretched his arms and legs, A.S. convulsed in pain and screamed. The guards warned: “You see nobody can stop us, so keep your f*cking mouth shut about this whole ordeal boy.”

Guards forced Jewish prisoner Matthew Phillips, 31, into a cage with two known Skinheads, who beat and kicked Phillips unconscious while the guards watched. Phillips died three days later, as PLN reported, one of seven prisoner deaths—including at least six homicides—at the UPS-Thomson SMU between its opening in 2019 and its closure in 2023. [See: PLN, Aug. 2023, p.16.]

Prisoner Kareem Louis repeatedly objected to being forced into a cell with another unnamed prisoner whom both he and guards knew to be dangerous. That prisoner then stabbed Louis in the hands, back, arm and neck, raping him as he lay unconscious.

Overall, the report uncovered evidence of 82 prisoners who were assaulted or violently restrained by guards; 39 prisoners who were assaulted while in restraints; 28 prisoners whom guards repeatedly assaulted and restrained; 13 prisoners whom guards left in 4-point restraints from 24 to 96 hours; and 178 individual incidents of guards using restraints as a form of punishment or torture, leaving scars known as the “Thomson tattoo.”

The report also detailed prisoners denied mental health treatment and medical treatment. Staff interference during attorneys’ visits with the prisoners, including cancellation of visits without justification, were documented. Additionally, guards and counselors at SMU routinely refused to provide forms necessary to file complaints and grievances, resulting in prisoners being unable to exhaust their administrative remedies, as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e, thus preventing them from filing suit.

In 2018, while a lawsuit was pending over earlier alleged prisoner abuse at USP-Lewisburg in Pennsylvania, BOP moved its SMU from there to USP-Thomson. Closure of the unit at USP-Lewisburg mooted the suit there, and it was dismissed. But SMU persisted, many of its prisoners and guards transferred to the new location in Illinois. When abuses that continued at the SMU in USP-Thomson came to light, BOP closed it in February 2023, dispersing its prisoners and guards to several other lockups.

The report calls for several actions: (1) for BOP to shut down SMU and not re-open it anywhere; (2) for DOJ to open a criminal investigation into the alleged abuses immediately; (3) for the prison system to limit and monitor the use of restraints and (4) create an accessible grievance process; and (5) for DOJ to create external independent oversight. See: Cruel and Usual: An Investigation Into Prison Abuse at USP Thomson, WLCCR&UA (July 2023).  

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