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Department of Justice opens investigation at Ill. federal prison

The probe is looking into the overuse of solitary confinement and deaths of seven inmates over a two-year period

By Sarah Hayden
Moline Dispatch and Rock Island Argus

THOMSON, Ill. — The U.S. Department of Justice Inspector General’s Office has opened an investigation into Thomson Federal Prison amid ongoing allegations of abuse, the overuse of solitary confinement and the deaths of seven inmates over a two-year period.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D- Ill., announced the investigation Thursday and called for the immediate replacement of Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal. Despite Cavajal’s announcement in January that he would resign, he remains in charge of the BOP.

“It’s no secret that the Federal Bureau of Prisons has been plagued by misconduct,” Durbin said in statement. “One investigation after another has revealed a culture of abuse, mismanagement, corruption, torture and death that reaches all the way to the top.”

Durbin, U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D- Ill., and U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D- Moline, requested a federal investigation by the Department of Justice following publication of a report May 31 by The Marshall Project and NPR that describes serious abuse of inmates by correctional officers.

The lawmakers sent a joint letter June 1 to U.S. Inspector General Michael Horowitz demanding immediate action.

“The opening of U.S. Penitentiary Thomson was supposed to improve safety within the Bureau of Prisons, but the reality sadly has been the exact opposite,” Durbin said. “According to this report, seven inmates at U.S. Penitentiary Thomson have died in just two years. Five of them were reportedly murdered by other inmates, two died by suicide. And those deaths are just a snapshot of the grim reality of this facility, the deadly grim reality.”

The Marshall Project report describes correctional officers intentionally pairing inmates together who are known to attack each other; staff encouraging assaults against sex offenders and informants; abusive shackling that leaves scars known as the " Thomson tattoo,” often in a room known as the “torture room,” where men would lie shackled to a bed for hours in their own urine and feces without food or water; the highest rate of pepper-spray usage in the Bureau of Prisons (BOP); and an incident in which staff allegedly laughed and joked at the expense of a Jewish man they were guarding as he lay dying in a hospital following an assault that occurred after staff placed him in a recreation cage with known white supremacists.

The federal prison in Thomson, Ill., currently houses 918 inmates: 789 in the maximum security facility and 129 at the adjacent minimum security camp.

AFGE Local 4070 President Jonathan Zumkehr said Thursday that he welcomed an investigation.

“We fully support the investigation, and we have invited Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth to visit USP Thomson,” Zumkehr said. “We want full transparency.”

Durbin, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called USP Thomson a “house of horrors” and said a hearing would be held in the upcoming weeks on the Bureau of Prisons and allegations of abuse and death at USP Thomson.

“The continued overuse of restricted housing and the alleged abuses at Thomson are among the many instances of misconduct, mismanagement that have occurred under the failed leadership of Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal,” Durbin said.

“We need to act before another inmate dies in the custody and care of this federal government.”


(c)2022 Moline Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, Ill.