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“Are You Freaking Kidding Me?” Former BOP Warden Accuses Guards of Recruiting Prisoners for Assaults at Troubled Lockup in Illinois

by David M. Reutter


Before he retired in July 2023, Warden Thomas Bergami was sent by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to the U.S. Penitentiary (USP) in Thomson, Illinois, with a mandate: Clean the place up. But Begami said he got little support for his reform efforts and was in fact actively opposed by guards—some of whom even goaded prisoners to assault him.

            The latter claim was first made in a handwritten letter from 14 prisoners that arrived at prison nonprofit advocacy The Marshall Project (TMP) in late December 2022, headed “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY ISSUE!!!” The prisoners who wrote it said that guards angered by Bergami’s reform efforts attempted to bribe them to attack him and one of his captains, offering to “poorly tighten their hand restraints” during the warden’s walk-through so that they could slip free and assault him.

As PLN reported, USP-Thomson inherited the Special Management Unit (SMU) from USP-Lewisburg in Pennsylvania in 2018, while a lawsuit was pending there over abuse alleged by prisoners held in the high-security unit. By July 2023, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs had found evidence that 82 prisoners in the SMU at USP-Thomson had been assaulted or violently restrained by guards—39 of them while in restraints, and 28 of those assaulted repeatedly; additionally, there were 13 prisoners left in 4-point restraints from 24 to 96 hours, among 178 individual incidents of guards using restraints as a form of punishment or torture, leaving scars known as the “Thomson tattoo.” By the time its closure was announced on February 14, 2023, it was BOP’s deadliest unit, reporting at least seven deaths, including six homicides. [See: PLN, Feb. 2024, p.43.]

Most of the deadly violence was blamed on double-celling prisoners, with single-occupancy cells used to hold the worst in prolonged isolation. But guard use of force was commonplace, running up BOP’s highest rate of pepper-spray use. Sex offenders were also “outed,” putting them at increased risk of assaults that guards couldn’t or didn’t prevent.

Even before the closing was announced, guards pointed fingers at each other and at Bergami, blaming him for leaving 100 guard vacancies unfilled. Guard union officials also tallied 275 incidents in 2022 when frustrated and bored prisoners suffering mental illness exposed themselves to guards or masturbated in front of them.

Bergami said he quickly realized that SMU had an “enormous problem with inmate abuse,” especially overuse of restraints. Guards were accused of falsifying disciplinary charges against Black prisoners. Staff attitude, the new warden said, was “the worst I’ve seen in 31 years” of work. He hired Denny Whitmore, another 30-year BOP veteran, as his associate warden. Both were reportedly horrified to find guards walking shackled prisoners backwards down the stairs, moving some without coats or shoes across the yard in freezing winter weather.

Concerned that restraints were being overused, Bergani ordered guards to stop using “black box” handcuffs, which are meant only for dangerous transfers, to move lower-security prisoners. He also required videotaped checks on chained-down prisoners. Watching one recording later, he found the shackled prisoner was compliant — making restraint unnecessary. “He was cool as a cucumber,” Bergani recalled. “It didn’t add up.” But some guards pushed back, vowing to use the “black box” anyway and calling Bergamni “that f—-- motherfucker in charge,” according to the account of one erstwhile whistleblower. Replied union Pres. Jonathan Zumkehr, “I will disagree 100%. That didn’t happen.” He called for Bergami’s firing.

Though BOP didn’t publicly undermine the warden, his attempts to terminate several guards were overruled. One allegedly threw away a prisoner’s mail, which is a felony offense. Another was named in two prisoner lawsuits alleging excessive force. A second letter sent to TMP said that guards “suggested” the warden should be stabbed. A BOP investigator who interviewed some of the prisoners who signed the letter found their testimony “fairly consistent,” yet he “could not confirm nor refute” their allegations. The guards that Bergami tried to fire were quietly returned to duty.

“When the regional director called me and said, ‘Well, they looked into it and put [them] back on their post,’” the Warden recalled, “I’m like, ‘Are you freaking kidding me right now?’”

Unsurprisingly, he and Whitmore soon retired. “My staff were saying to stab me and the captain,” Bergami said. “I’ve got to worry about our safety.”

“How do you root out the bad apples if you’re not allowed to terminate those who have been recommended for termination?” Whitmore added.


Source: The Marshall Project

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