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Bureau of Prisons cuts retention bonuses at USP Thomson

“It makes zero sense for them to add 1,000 new inmates and cut the pay of the staff members by 25%,” the union said


AP Photo/M. Spencer Green

By Gretchen Teske
Quad City Times, Davenport, Iowa

THOMSON, Ill. — Staff at Thomson Prison learned Monday morning the Bureau of Prisons will no longer provide them a 25% retention bonuses after Dec. 31, 2023.

Retention bonuses for Thomson staff, equivalent to about $16,000 annually, were approved in September 2021 after pressure from Illinois Democratic Senators Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin and then- U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, according to previous reporting.

At the time, it was reported the high-security federal prison was struggling with a shortage of correctional officers and staff due to low pay, low morale and a lack of affordable housing. In 2021, the staff reportedly had 96 open positions.

There are 400 employees on staff, but that is still 71 short of the authorized level, said American Federation of Government Employees Local 4070 President Jon Zumkehr. The prison is operating with an overall staffing percentage of 84%.

Rumors of the proposed cuts have been swirling for several months. In October, Bureau of Prisons staff confirmed the bonuses were set to expire on New Years Eve, but did not confirm at the time if they would be renewed.

Requests for statements from the Bureau of Prisons and Sen . Joni Ernst were not immediately answered. A spokesperson for Sen. Chuck Grassley said, “the safety and security of our nation’s prison systems should remain at the forefront” but offered no comment on the removal of the bonuses directly.

A joint statement released by Sens. Tammy Duckworth, Dick Durbin and Rep. Eric Sorensen said they have supported the staff at Thomson for years, including advocating for the 25% retention bonus to remain in place.

“It is critical that BOP leadership prioritizes retention and recruitment efforts to incentivize employees to continue working at the facility and to help the prison run safely and effectively,” the statement read.

At Monday’s meeting, Zumkehr said an additional 13 staff members indicated they would resign or transfer to a new facility as a result of this decision. That would push the number of staff vacancies up to 84, forcing the prison to operate with an overall staffing percentage below 80%, he said.

A memorandum sent to staff and signed by Thomson Warden Brian Lammer said the last bonus would be paid for the Dec. 26-Jan. 8 pay period. Lammer closed the note mentioning he understood this affected everyone differently and offered phone numbers for the Employee Assistance Program and Bureau of Human Services.

“Thank you all again for all that you do, and I will continue to give my full support to each and every one of you,” he wrote.

In an emailed statement, Zumkehr said the cutting of bonuses will result in a major pay cut following the holidays. The union is now urging the Bureau of Prisons to reverse its decision.

“We need to keep the retention pay in place and establish a positive rapport and morale with employees while we work through the changes of the new mission at Thomson,” Zumkehr said. “While many facilities have been riddled with staffing issues, Thomson’s concerns could be minimized by keeping the retention in place for all the staff there.”

Zumkehr said announcing the pay cuts right before Christmas was “unconscionable,” but that was only the tip of the iceberg. During the meeting Monday, staff discussed augmentation, where the Bureau of Prisons would remove teachers and counselors from the prison and put them on custody post.

Earlier this year the Bureau of Prisons announced Thomson would be converted from a high-security prison to a low-security facility. With this change came the addition of 1,000 inmates, Zumkehr said.

Currently there are nearly 1,600 inmates at Thomson. In August, it was reported that number was closer to 1,300.

“It makes zero sense for them to add 1,000 new inmates and cut the pay of the staff members by 25%,” he said. “We’re the newest federal prison that’s open, and we have the newest mission. We have not shown that we can fully staff or retain staff, and their solution is to cut the pay and add 1,000 new inmates. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Thomson has made its way into the headlines numerous times over the last several years. In March 2022 , it was reported two officers required medical attention after being exposed to illegal drugs.

Zumkehr said on Monday that problem has not gotten better and four staff members were hospitalized in the last month for the same reason. With a reduced staff and an increase in inmates, the problems will only worsen, he said.

“We are fully packed at Thomson, and they are adding 1,000 inmates on top of that,” he said. “This is backwards.”


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