Published on: Tuesday, February 14, 2023

The federal Bureau of Prisons is closing the notorious Special Management Unit at Thomson penitentiary in Illinois, after frequent reports of violence and abuse (article available here). Previous coverage available here.

An investigation last year by NPR and The Marshall Project found that Thomson had quickly become one of the deadliest federal prisons, with five suspected homicides and two suspected suicides since the unit opened in 2019. The report also uncovered conditions that stoked violence, where volatile prisoners were locked down together in small cells for nearly 24 hours a day, often despite repeated warning signs.

A Bureau of Prisons spokesperson said in an email on Tuesday that they "recently identified significant concerns with respect to institutional culture and compliance with BOP policies" at Thomson, requiring "immediate corrective measures."

Officials would not comment on where those previously held at the SMU at Thomson were being transferred. Those housed in the general population and the minimum security camp will remain.

The move comes just weeks after another man at Thomson, 32-year-old Victor GutiƩrrez, was found unresponsive in the prison and died, according to a Justice Department press release. The department has not released his cause of death.

Men at Thomson have also reported abuse at the hands of staff, including being placed in painful four-point restraints for hours or days at a time.

The special management unit was originally housed at Lewisburg Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, a facility known for similarly high rates of violence among prisoners and shackling by staff. It's unclear whether the unit, which is meant to separate the most disruptive people in federal prison from the general population, will reopen elsewhere.

Thomson was built in 2001 as an Illinois state prison, but sat empty for years until it was bought by the Justice Department.