Federal Prison In Thomson, Illinois Is Among The Deadliest : Consider This from NPR NPR and The Marshall Project have uncovered violence, abuse and a string of inmate deaths at a new penitentiary in Thomson, Ill.

The reporting in this episode comes from NPR Investigative Correspondent Joseph Shapiro and reporter Christie Thompson of The Marshall Project. Find more from their story here.

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How A New Federal Prison Became One Of The Country's Deadliest

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Sue Phillips thinks the prison guards had to know what was going to happen. They put her son, Matthew, in a recreation cage with two members of a white supremacist gang, and Matthew was Jewish.

SUE PHILLIPS: He got a Star of David tattooed on his chest, sort of on, like, the breastbone area. And it was just a large Star of David, and you could not miss it.

SHAPIRO: You also couldn't miss that the two men let into the rec cage with Matt had tattoos of their own, tattoos that showed they were members of a prison gang called the Valhalla Bound Skinheads.

PHILLIPS: They also had cells that contained Nazi memorabilia - mugs with swastikas on them, articles and literature promoting white supremacy, drawings of Hitler.

SHAPIRO: We know all this from the federal indictment of the two men, which, we'll warn you, contains some graphic details. It describes what happened on a Monday morning in March, back in 2020, in a new federal prison in Thomson, Ill. That's on the western edge of the state right along the Mississippi River. Matt Phillips was in prison for selling heroin. And that morning in the rec cage, the two men allegedly attacked Phillips, kicking and stomping his head.

PHILLIPS: There was a reference in the indictment that said they continued to kick him in the head repeatedly, even when he became defenseless and even when the guard shouted stop. What, if anything, did the guards do to stop this besides shouting stop?

SHAPIRO: In the hospital, doctors had to remove half of Matt's skull to relieve the swelling. It wasn't enough. He died at the age of 31. His story is not unique. Since 2020, six other prisoners have died violently at Thomson - stabbings, hangings. Some cases are still unresolved.

PHILLIPS: We are so outraged what happened to our son. And now to learn how many times it's happened over and over again at really this house of horrors - there needs to be answers.

SHAPIRO: Thomson is just the latest site of what the Federal Bureau of Prisons calls its special management unit. That's a disciplinary unit reserved for dangerous prisoners. There used to be one at a different site in Lewisburg, Penn. But six years ago, after an investigation by NPR and The Marshall Project showed high rates of violence there, the government shut Lewisburg down and moved the unit to Thomson.

MARK DONATELLI: Lewisburg was not only a violence factory. It was a homicide factory.

SHAPIRO: Mark Donatelli is part of the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel, lawyers who represent defendants in federal death penalty cases. He says conditions that caused violence at Lewisburg are the same or worse at Thomson. Prisoners with mental health problems don't get care. They're forced into tiny cells with men they don't get along with and locked down for 23 hours a day. And there's a severe officer shortage.

DONATELLI: This is likely another violence or homicide factory that the Bureau of Prisons is running.

SHAPIRO: CONSIDER THIS - the prison in Thomson, Ill., was supposed to be safer, but an investigation by NPR and The Marshall Project found that the newest U.S. penitentiary has quickly become one of the deadliest. From NPR, I'm Ari Shapiro. It's Wednesday, June 1.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. The reporting in this episode comes from NPR investigative correspondent Joseph Shapiro and reporter Christie Thompson of The Marshall Project. They uncovered a pattern of violence at the federal prison in Thomson, Ill., and found staff there used harsh methods to control prisoners. Again, what you're about to hear contains some graphic details. Joe Shapiro picks up the story from here.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Last summer, Bobby Everson got transferred to the federal prison in Thomson, Ill.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAPER RUSTLING)

SHAPIRO: In his letters home, like this one read by his sister, he started sounding more scared.

EBONY EVERSON: (Reading) This facility is for disciplinary inmates. I'm doing my best to stay out their way. I'm just a couple of years to the door.

SHAPIRO: And then those letters started sounding more desperate.

E EVERSON: (Reading) I got into it with a few officers and a few guys in here. Just keep checking up with me at this prison.

SHAPIRO: Just days before Bobby Everson died, he wrote that corrections officers had it out for him. They'd given him a new cellmate. It was someone he told his cousin he was afraid of.

ROOSEVELT MURRAY: (Reading) And I got in a little scuffle with another dude they put me in the cell with. I feel the staff here is purposefully trying to put me in situations of conflict. I'm doing all I can to stay out the way. Pray for your little cousin, man, that I get through unscathed.

SHAPIRO: An investigation by NPR and The Marshall Project finds that the U.S. prison at Thomson, Ill., is one of the deadliest and most dangerous in the country. Prison records say seven prisoners have died violently since March of 2020. In 2016, we investigated violence at an earlier version of that disciplinary unit. Now at the new prison, we found more violence and more killings caused by the same problems - of two men locked down for 23 hours a day or more in one small cell about the size of a parking space; of men placed in restraints, often painful four-point restraints, for hours or days; of corrections officers putting two men together who they had reason to believe would fight.

SABRINA EVERSON: The chaplain had called me.

SHAPIRO: On December 16, Sabrina Everson got a phone call from the prison chaplain at Thomson about her son Bobby, who the family called A.J.

S EVERSON: He said he was sorry to inform me that they had found A.J.

E EVERSON: They found him unresponsive in his cell at 9 a.m. in the morning.

SHAPIRO: That's Ebony, Everson's sister.

S EVERSON: Yeah. Yeah.

SHAPIRO: When the body was returned to them in Syracuse, N.Y., they saw the many cuts and bruises to his face and body. At one point, a federal agent told them that Everson had died as a result of blunt force trauma. But that's it. They can't get any other details - not even the death certificate - more than five months after Everson's death.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

SHAPIRO: Not even after calling and calling.

UNIDENTIFIED FUNERAL HOME DIRECTOR: Hey, Ebony.

SHAPIRO: The funeral home director back near the prison - he's trying to help.

UNIDENTIFIED FUNERAL HOME DIRECTOR: Hey. I know you're probably calling on death certificates.

E EVERSON: Yes. Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED FUNERAL HOME DIRECTOR: I just checked this past week. They're not available to us yet, but I would expect them to, you know, not be too long.

E EVERSON: So within a couple of weeks.

SHAPIRO: NPR knows more of the details than Everson's family because the day after he was attacked in his cell, another prisoner wrote us a letter. Demetrius Hill says he was a witness to the death of Bobby "A.J." Everson.

ROBERT DAVIS: (Reading) On 12-15-21, a young prisoner was killed in cell F313. I'm in cell 15.

SHAPIRO: That's someone reading the letter from Hill. We knew Hill and he knew us because we'd interviewed him for our stories about abuse at the prison at Lewisburg. His description of how Everson died is disturbing. For one thing, Everson was small and slight, about 5'6" tall. Hill says the cellmate is a large man, heavy and tall. The Bureau of Prisons says it can't talk to us about a pending investigation. Hill says corrections officers should have known Everson was in danger because the cellmate was telling them he was going to get violent.

DAVIS: (Reading) He had been telling the COs for two weeks, get the dude out of his cell or he'll kill him. He told this to numerous COs even on the night it happened. At 10 o'clock, he told the CO doing his rounds to get him out the cell or he would kill him.

SHAPIRO: Hill says corrections officers ignored the threat. And even worse, on the night of the killing, one corrections officer even encouraged the cellmate.

DAVIS: (Reading) The CO told him, just do it. Do it. The CO then slammed the metal flap, closed over the window, the cell door window.

SHAPIRO: We're not naming the man who Hill says killed Everson because he hasn't been charged with a crime. But Hill says other prisoners feared that man.

DEMETRIUS HILL: He had at least - at a minimum, at least 10 different fights with 10 different inmates. He had numerous assaults on the staff.

SHAPIRO: That's Demetrius Hill. Recently he was transferred from Thomson. I spoke to him on the phone about the death of Bobby "A.J." Everson.

HILL: To force this kid in a cell with this madman - they knew the result. He had just beaten another prisoner who had been in a cell with him. I'm talking about maybe two weeks prior. Another prisoner - I don't know his name, but he was beating that inmate for days on end. Days on end, he was beating that prisoner. Finally, they took him out and stuffed Loopy in there.

SHAPIRO: Loopy - that's the nickname Bobby Everson used in prison. On this and some of the details we've been able to confirm, Hill's story is accurate. We found Federal Bureau of Prisons documents that list Everson's death as a homicide even though the BOP had not said that publicly. NPR was not able to independently verify other details of Hill's account. Hill also wrote letters to a federal judge in Illinois with some of these same details. We asked for more confirmation from BOP and the FBI, which is responsible for investigating Everson's death. Did the cellmate kill Everson? Was the cellmate known to be violent? Both the BOP and the FBI said they can't discuss a matter under investigation.

BOBBY EVERSON: Oh, God. I was scared for him because we don't know what's happening in them prisons, you know?

SHAPIRO: That's Everson's father, also named Bobby Everson. The family wanted to know more. I read part of Demetrius Hill's letters to them about how he says their son died and about how he was terrorized in those last weeks by his cellmate.

(Reading) And Loopy stayed in his bed, pressed to the top bunk, clearly spooked, lost, denied even a shower. He was completely powerless, a victim waiting to happen.

S EVERSON: I still don't believe it.

B EVERSON: It's just horrible.

SHAPIRO: As for that prisoner who we're told killed Everson, we found his letters to a judge, and he had his own troubles. The man wrote he was paranoid that prison officials wouldn't give him his medications, that he was attacked by a different cellmate. Just a month before Everson died, the man wrote to the court, I am tired of fighting people. There's one thing, according to evidence we found, that he and Bobby Everson had in common. Both were subjected to one of the harshest punishments at Thomson. They'd both been taken to the place that some prisoners called the dungeon and tied in restraints to a bed or chair. That's another problem we heard about again and again of men at Thomson.

JACQUELINE KUTNIK-BAUDER: They are being what's called four-pointed, which means that they're having their arms and their legs stretched out and held separated for hours and sometimes days on end.

SHAPIRO: That's attorney Jacqueline Kutnik-Bauder.

KUTNIK-BAUDER: They are denied food. They're denied water. They're not given access to the toilet. Many of them report being left in their own waste for hours and sometimes days. It's really akin to a torture chamber.

SHAPIRO: Kutnik-Bauder works for the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. That group sued the prison at Lewisburg, the prison that was part of the earlier NPR and Marshall Project investigation. The Lawyers' Committee sued over the failure to get prisoners at Lewisburg medications and mental health care. That lawsuit was thrown out after the federal government closed down the Special Management Unit, a program for prisoners considered disciplinary problems, and moved it from Lewisburg to Thomson. Now those lawyers are hearing about the same problems at the new prison from dozens of prisoners. NPR and The Marshall Project, too, communicated with or read the letters to judges of a few dozen men. And a warning - their descriptions, which you're about to hear, are disturbing.

ANDRE GRAY: (Reading) The chains and handcuffs are so tight that your extremities go numb first. Then they swell. Then the slightest touch when they do a restraint check will make you scream.

SHAPIRO: These are read from some of their letters.

REGINALD WILLIAMS: (Reading) The tightness of the waist chain and hand restraints felt as if they were eating at my wrists and waist. The slightest movement I made provoked pain that caused my mouth and eyes to flush open and stick as my body quivered.

SHAPIRO: Men told us the restraints are kept on so tight and for so long for hours or even days that they're left with scars. The prisoners call these their Thomson tattoo.

GRAY: (Reading) To be chained down inside of an ice-cold cell where the restraints are cutting into your flesh, forced to defecate and urinate on yourself is torture.

SHAPIRO: Over and over, we heard that guards put men in restraints over minor violations...

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Hello. This is a prepaid debit call from...

JOSEPH VANSACH: Joseph Vansach.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: An inmate at the...

SHAPIRO: ...Or that corrections officers make up phony violations...

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: This call is from a correction facility and is subject to monitoring and recording.

SHAPIRO: ...To put someone they don't like into those harsh restraints.

VANSACH: In each of those four units, you have a restraint room.

SHAPIRO: That's Joseph Vansach, who spent about three years at Thomson.

VANSACH: It's cell 23. In every unit, there's a torture room there where they can four-point you.

SHAPIRO: In March, Vansach was found guilty of assaulting a corrections officer at Thomson after a seven-day trial where he represented himself. Vansach argued in court that corrections officers lied when they said he slipped his hand out of restraints and hit an officer in the eye.

VANSACH: Before, they used to put us in cell 101, the handicapped cell. But the camera footage always disappears.

SHAPIRO: A jury didn't believe Vansach's version. But NPR and The Marshall Project got access to some internal Justice Department and Bureau of Prisons documents. And they say three corrections officers at Thomson were disciplined in another case for exactly that - for making up an excuse to take another prisoner from his cell and put him into restraints and then faking injuries to one officer to back up charging that prisoner with assault.

SHAPIRO: There's a link in our episode notes where you can find more from this story, which was reported by NPR investigative correspondent Joseph Shapiro with Christie Thompson of The Marshall Project. It's CONSIDER THIS from NPR. I'm Ari Shapiro.

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