The Federal Bureau of Prisons has failed to punish administrators of a high-security federal penitentiary in Illinois for what have been described as acts of torture and a culture of "rampant racism," according to a report released Thursday by advocates for inmate rights.
An 18-month investigation into the Special Management Unit, or SMU, in the U.S. penitentiary in Thomson, Illinois, detailed what accounts from more than 120 prisoners indicate were acts of "extreme physical and psychological abuse" at the hands of staffers and fellow inmates, according to the report on the results, titled "Cruel and Usual."
The BOP shut down the unit in February following reports of abuse and after pressure from elected officials, but the bureau has yet to bring disciplinary or any other actions against anyone responsible, the report says."The complete lack of any accountability is astounding," said Jacqueline Kutnik-Bauder in a statement. She is the deputy legal director of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs, a nonprofit that worked on the report alongside lawyers from Latham & Watkins LLP, Uptown People's Law Center and Levy Firestone Muse LLP.
"As far as we can tell, not one person has been disciplined or faced criminal charges related to the abuses in the special management unit," Kutnik-Bauder added in the statement.
More than 40 attorneys and legal staffers worked on the investigation, which centered on interviews with SMU inmates and the review of over 1,000 pages of prison records that corroborated most of the inmates' accounts.
Prisoner Kareem Louis said he was forced into a cell with someone prison staffers knew was violent. The cellmate stabbed Louis in the hands, back, arms and neck, then raped him while he was unconscious, according to the report.
The report also cited another inmate, Daryl Hickson, who recalled objecting to his cell assignment because of a conflict with his cellmate. The situation didn't end well.
"You either kill or be killed," a white guard told him, according to the report. "You're going back in that cell to get killed, [n-word]."
After Hickson continued to complain, officers shackled him, immobilized all four of his limbs on a stretcher, and left him that way for hours, he recounted.
A prisoner identified in the report only by initials, J.B., is cited as saying he attempted suicide nine times while being held in the SMU. J.B. reportedly said prison guards restrained him to a chair for 24 hours and denied him food, water and access to a toilet after he told them he had swallowed an excessive amount of pills.
The report further cites Inmates who reported being regularly placed in tight four-point restraints for hours, a practice that left permanent scars on their wrists, ankles and stomachs — informally known as "Thomson Tattoos." Multiple inmates reported being beaten and sexually assaulted while in restraints.
In its recommendations, the report urged the BOP to strictly limit and monitor the use of restraints. It also called for the U.S. Department of Justice to impose external, independent oversight.
According to the report, more than 165 staff members participated in violence or abuse at the prison.
"The individuals with whom we spoke described nothing less than a culture of torture far too pervasive to be the result of a few 'bad apples,'" the report says.
In some cases, members of the investigating team said they witnessed violence firsthand during their inspection visits at the prison.
"We also witnessed firsthand abusive and obstructive staff behavior, and saw with our own eyes injuries inflicted by Thomson employees," the report says.
In a call with Law360, Kutnik-Baude said prison guards are at fault for both the acts of violence they themselves carried out and for not intervening to prevent violence among inmates.
"Under the Constitution and federal law, the guards have a duty to protect people from known threats," she said. "What happened at [the Thomson penitentiary] is that guards were intentionally forcing people into cells together that had antagonisms."
For example, she said, a Jewish man was placed in the same cell with two known white supremacists. In other instances, she said, inmates were placed with peers who were known to be mentally ill and threatening, or who were physically or sexually violent.
"[The guards] also would tell people that they were expecting them to fight and, if they didn't, that they would be put in four-point restraints or tortured otherwise," Kutnik-Baude said.
The report's authors urged the U.S. Department of Justice to open criminal investigations into the abuse allegations at the prison and to abolish the SMU program altogether.
"Ending systemic abuses should be a priority," Kevin Metz, a Latham partner who acted as counsel to the investigation, said in a statement.
A spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons told Law360 in an email that the agency took "corrective measures" after it identified "significant concerns with respect to institutional culture and compliance with BOP policies" at the prison.
"The BOP remains unwavering in our commitment to swiftly address misconduct and resolve troubling accusations with resolute measures. Allegations of employee misconduct will continue to be met with rigorous investigations and decisive action. A culture not representative of the agency's core values will not be tolerated," the spokesperson, Benjamin O'Cone, said.
Located in rural Illinois on the banks of the Mississippi River, the Thompson prison had a capacity of 2,100 beds in 2014 — 1,900 high-security SMU beds and 200 minimum-security beds — according to a report released to Congress. In 2022, the prison housed about 1,200 people on average, according to an audit published last year.
According to Kutnik-Baude and congressional reports, the Bureau of Prisons assigns inmates who "present unique security and management concerns" to the special units, usually for up to a year. Conditions in special units are more restrictive than those for general population prisoners. In special units, prisoners are typically placed in pairs inside cells that are roughly the size of a parking spot. These inmates sleep in a bunk bed and share a little toilet and a sink.
"Those people are confined in that cell together 23 hours a day," Kutnik-Baude told Law 360 by phone.
The report found that some inmates were held in the SMU for nearly four consecutive years.
According to BOP directives, prisoners who qualify for SMU confinement are those who took parts in killings, assaults or riots, who possessed drugs, took part in gang activity, or have long histories of disciplinary infractions committed while in prison.
One of the elected officials who has shown interest in the Thomson prison, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, a Democrat who chairs the Senate's judiciary committee, called for the abolition of the SMU program in a statement Thursday that mentioned the report by the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs.
Durbin, who has visited the penitentiary and called for a shutdown of its SMU unit in the past, said he plans to question the BOP's director, Colette S. Peters, about the allegations in the report.
"Last summer, I was deeply disturbed by reports of abuses at [the Thomson penitentiary]. I called for an investigation, which the Justice Department Inspector General agreed to undertake. The deeply disturbing allegations detailed in today's [news] reports emphasize the need to expedite this investigation and refer any crimes that may have been committed to the Justice Department for prosecution," Durbin said. "Anyone who violated the civil rights of individuals incarcerated at Thomson should be held accountable."
BY THE NUMBERS
Violence at USP Thomson
An investigation of a Special Management Unit inside Thomson U.S. Penitentiary in Illinois included interviews with over 120 inmates and found widespread violence carried out with impunity by both prison guards and prisoners.
acts of physical violence by guards at Thomson
incidents of guards using restraints as a form of punishment or torture
incidents of retaliation by guards
people were assaulted by guards while in restraints
individuals reported being forced to share a cell with someone who posed a threat
people with serious mental illnesses, such as depression and schizophrenia, were held in the SMU in violation of BOP policies
incidents of sexual assault by guards
individuals attempted suicide, in some cases as many as nine times
people held in four-point restraints by guards for 24 to 96 hours straight