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A new report documents civil rights abuses, including torture, that allegedly occurred at a United States prison in Illinois. It contains several examples of retaliation against prisoners who challenged their abusive treatment and confinement conditions.
Prison staff are accused of creating a “culture of fear and intimidation that systematically suppressed the use of the grievance process,” which effectively emboldens and shields the people who are supposed to be held accountable.
"This report is dedicated to the brave individuals who, despite facing retaliation, physical danger, and psychological trauma, spoke out about the conditions in the Special Management Unit [SMU] at the United States Penitentiary in Thomson, Illinois,” the first page declares.
The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs, Uptown People’s Law Center in Chicago, and Levy Firestone Muse LLP in Washington, D.C. conducted “at least 100 interviews and legal calls, and reviewed over a thousand pages of correspondence and institutional records.”
“We uncovered a widespread culture of abuse involving officials up and down the chain of command,” the report states [PDF]. “Thomson staff assaulted people in the SMU almost daily—for personal reasons, retaliation for grieving prior abuses, and sometimes for no reason at all.”
“Five individuals imprisoned at USP Thomson died unnatural deaths between 2019 and 2022, the most of any BOP [Bureau of Prisons] facility. Countless other individuals suffered serious injuries and unquantifiable psychological trauma, and many risked grave retaliations just to stand up for their rights.”
As the report makes clear, prisoners who challenge their treatment by filing grievance forms do so at great risk.
“Individuals in the BOP are often required to get grievance forms from, and file their initial grievances with, the very staff who abused them,” according to the report. “In the SMU, guards punished people for filing grievances by putting them in restraints, placing them in dangerous celling situations, threatening to rape them, destroying their property, and trumping up false sexual assault or masturbation infractions.”
The investigation found more than 50 prisoners who had faced retaliation from guards in 136 incidents.
One horrifying example of retaliation allegedly occurred after a prisoner listed as A.S. wrote letters to the American Civil Liberties Union and Office of the Inspector General (OIG) at the US Justice Department.
“Just after A.S. handed the letters to his counselor to mail, a group of guards dragged him from his cell and attacked him at the direction of a Lieutenant, who initiated the attack by simply saying ‘Now.’ The guards dug their nails into A.S.’s eyes, bent his fingers backwards, bashed his head into the ground, and struck him in the back, side, and legs.
“We’re going to teach your dumb n****r ass,” one guard allegedly stated. A.S. was then brought on a gurney to a restraint room, where he was choked and guards “dug into his eyes with gloves covered in pepper spray.”
“Once in the restraint room, officials placed him in four-point restraints, sneaking in blows to his body while carefully avoiding the view of a handheld camera operated by a guard at the door. Two hours later, six officials came back with a lieutenant to assault him again. One told him, ‘You’re our bitch. We can do whatever we want to you. Now there’s no cameras and nobody is going to stop us.’”
The brutality allegedly escalated. “Over the course of several hours, officials repeatedly tortured A.S., kneeing him in the groin and prying apart his lips so they could bang metal keys on his teeth. At one point a Lieutenant asked the other officials in the room, ‘Y’all haven’t broken him yet? I would’ve had him at least three inches taller by now.’ The officials immediately tightened the restraints in response, which gouged into A.S.’s skin, and violently stretched his legs toward the table at the bottom of the concrete slab.”
“That Black bitch is going to be taller,” the Lieutenant laughed, as they left the cell.
According to the report, A.S. felt his body convulse. “He screamed in pain and prayed for death. Hours later, during a restraint check, another lieutenant said, ‘I’m not going to help you. I don’t give a fuck about you. Stop crying.’”
It was an hour before a nurse loosened the restraints, and it was not until thirteen hours after the alleged assault that A.S. was taken back to his cell by a third lieutenant, who said: “Better not tell nobody what happened or next time will be worse. You see nobody can stop us, so keep your fucking mouth shut about this whole ordeal, boy.”
Guards subjected prisoners in the SMU to “psychological trauma” by imposing “extended solitary confinement.” They sometimes locked two prisoners in one cell for 23 hours a day with someone who was known to be “dangerous.”
Prisoner M.B. was allegedly put in four-point restraints in retaliation for "alerting the Warden to threats against his life by guards." A guard "threatened to cut off M.B.’s penis but instead cut off three of his dreadlocks, waving them in the air while shouting, 'I spared your dick!'"
Staff also fabricated charges against individuals scheduled to speak with their attorneys, then punished them "in order to create a pretense for cancelling a legal call."
The U.S. government shut down the Thomson SMU in February 2023, but much of the same abuse allegedly continued at other facilities. Twenty prisoners reported “assault by staff or physical retaliation” and seven prisoners claimed they were “forced into cells with someone the guards knew was dangerous.” Six prisoners described an “inaccessible grievance process” while 13 prisoners reported that guards had used “excessive restraints.”
A system for guards to evade accountability and justice for cruel and inhuman treatment against prisoners in the SMU has apparently developed to cover up all this brutality.
The BOP created the first SMU at a facility in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. But after lawsuits alleged the SMU was violating the constitutional rights of prisoners, the BOP closed the SMU. In 2019, around 400 prisoners, as well as staff, were transferred to Thomson, “shifting the same venal culture from one SMU to the next.”
“From the moment the SMU opened at Thomson, people held there reported unconstitutional conditions surpassing those at Lewisburg, and an increase in staff violence,” the report adds. “Specifically, they reported excessive use of restraints, staff assaults, racial discrimination, being forced into cells with individuals who were known threats, interference with access to counsel and the grievance process, being forced by staff to fight other detained people, and wide-spread retaliation by guards.”
The investigation concludes that none of the abuses have resulted in any “administrative consequences or criminal charges” against BOP staff allegedly involved. “In fact, individuals at three different facilities have reported that multiple former Thomson guards are now working at their new institutions.”