Published on: Wednesday, June 1, 2022

NPR and The Marshall Project have uncovered violence, abuse and a string of inmate deaths at a new penitentiary in Thomson, Ill (audio and article available here).

There have been at least 167 recorded assaults at Thomson between January 2019 and October 2021, according to data provided by the bureau. But this is an undercount, as it doesn’t include more serious incidents or deaths that were dealt with outside the prison disciplinary system.

On top of the threat from other prisoners, dozens of incarcerated people at Thomson said they faced frequent abuse at the hands of guards.

The Thomson facility was built in 2001 by the Illinois Department of Corrections. But it sat vacant for years until the federal government bought the complex, at the urging of Illinois congress members. Lawmakers said it would create over a thousand jobs and bring in millions of dollars for local businesses.

Thomson is home to the Special Management Unit, a notorious prison program meant to house some of the system's most dangerous and volatile people — though many have ended up there who don't fit that description. The unit was previously housed at the penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa.

A 2016 investigation by The Marshall Project and NPR found the unit was plagued by frequent assaults, sparked by locking two people in a small cell for nearly 24 hours a day, a practice known as double-celled solitary confinement. When prisoners tried to reject a dangerous cellmate, many said they were locked in painful shackles until they relented.

The Marshall Project and NPR obtained federal prison data and agency documents, reviewed criminal and civil court cases, and interviewed dozens of people with knowledge of Thomson. In stories that echoed with the same visceral details, dozens of men said they lived under the pressing threat of violence from cellmates as well as brutality at the hands of staff. Specifically, many men reported being shackled in cuffs so tight they left scars, or being “four-pointed” and chained by each limb to a bed for hours, far beyond what happens at other prisons and in violation of bureau policy and federal regulations.

The Bureau of Prisons has been under heightened pressure and scrutiny after reports of sexual abuse, violence and other corruption. In January, agency director Michael Carvajal announced his resignation, after Sen. Durbin and others called for his firing.