Calls for Investigation after reports of abuse at Thomson federal prison More than 120 prisoners held at a special unit in Thomson Penitentiary reported mistreatment, a Washington Lawyers' Committee report says.

New accounts of abuse at federal prison prompt renewed calls for investigation

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DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

After reports that guards repeatedly abused prisoners, the Federal Bureau of Prisons shut down a large disciplinary unit at Thomson, Ill. An investigation by NPR and the Marshall Project exposed the problems at the prison. Now a new report by a civil rights group asks, why aren't prison officials being held accountable? NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Corrections officers kept tight and brutal control. They put prisoners in restraints and beat them. They forced them into cells with other men they knew they'd have to fight. There were seven violent deaths of prisoners in just over a year. Those were some of the findings of the NPR investigation last year with the Marshall Project into conditions in the disciplinary unit at the federal prison in Thomson, Ill.

MAGGIE HART: A culture of abuse.

SHAPIRO: That's Maggie Hart with the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. Lawyers for the prisoners say they were kept from their clients. Their phone calls went unanswered. If a lawyer showed up at the prison, they might be turned away. And if a lawyer did get in, there was often retaliation against the prisoner.

HART: Following the interviews, we found out from clients that they were interrogated about why they were meeting with an attorney. So there was a lot of intimidation.

SHAPIRO: Lawyer Maggie Hart.

HART: Their property would be destroyed. Their cell would be ransacked. They would be placed in restraints for hours, if not days, and beaten.

SHAPIRO: In February, officials at the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the BOP, and the U.S. Department of Justice concluded they couldn't fix the problems at Thomson and decided to shut down the disciplinary unit. More than 300 men were sent to other prisons around the country. After interviews with more than 100 of those men, the Washington Lawyers' Committee has issued a report it's demanding that the Department of Justice prosecute the guards and staff who abuse prisoners at Thomson. Jacqueline Kutnik-Bauder is deputy legal director at the civil rights law group.

JACQUELINE KUTNIK-BAUDER: The bottom line is that the BOP does not have a system of accountability to prevent abuse by the guards. And because they don't, there is no way to guarantee that people are - in their care are not going to be tortured.

AUTOMATED VOICE: This call is from a federal prison. You will not be charged for this call. This call is from...

SHAPIRO: Some of the prisoners who were moved out of Thompson are demanding accountability, too.

DARIUS TOWNSEND: They think they are above the law. Ain't nobody get held responsibility for what they did.

SHAPIRO: Darius Townsend says when he tried to file complaints about abuse by guards, he was beaten instead.

TOWNSEND: I'm laying on my back with the restraints around my ankles, a chain around my waist.

SHAPIRO: Many of the prisoners at Thomson were Black. Most of the staff was white.

TOWNSEND: So the officer put his right knee on my chest. He said, didn't I tell you if you keep being disruptive, you will be the next George Floyd? So he choked me and punched me in my jaw and walked right out the room.

SHAPIRO: Those ankle, wrist and belly restraints were kept so tight that they left scars, scars the men called their Thomson tattoos. Late last year, the new director of the Bureau of Prisons came to Thomson to see for herself. Townsend says he pulled up his prison uniform to show the official his scars.

TOWNSEND: The scars came from being in restraints for days. And they make the chain so tight to where you can't breathe. You can't move.

SHAPIRO: The leader of the union representing prison staff - he didn't want to comment for this story - has said in the past that guards and staff did not mistreat prisoners and welcomed any investigation, that the prison was understaffed and that it was the prisoners who were violent against guards. The special management unit was set up for gang members and other violent prisoners considered dangerous.

Our investigation found many who didn't seem to fit - men with serious mental health problems who, by rule, weren't supposed to be there. We asked the Bureau of Prisons to respond to the demand by the civil rights group for criminal charges against staff at Thomson. The BOP director in a statement said, allegations of employee misconduct will continue to be met with rigorous investigations and decisive action. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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