Durbin, Grassley, Duckworth, Sorensen Press BOP to Investigate Allegations of Abuse at USP Thomson

Senate Judiciary Committee to hold latest BOP oversight hearing next week

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee; U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee; U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL); and U.S. Representative Eric Sorensen (D-IL-17) today sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, and Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Director Colette Peters requesting information about serious allegations of abuse at United States Penitentiary (USP) Thomson in Illinois.

Recently, the Washington Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs (WLC) published a report entitled “Cruel and Usual: An Investigation into Prison Abuse at USP Thomson.”  As part of its investigation, WLC collected accounts of extreme physical and psychological abuse from more than 120 incarcerated people in the former Special Management Unit (SMU) at USP Thomson.  These accounts detailed shocking potential criminal and civil rights violations, including abusive use of restraints, dangerous celling practices, inappropriate responses to mental health diagnoses, sexual assaults, racist verbal abuse, and interference with access to counsel and the inmate grievance process.  In addition to WLC’s report, last year, NPR and The Marshall Project reported extensively on the deaths of seven incarcerated men and serious alleged abuses by USP Thomson staff.

At the request of Durbin, Duckworth, and former Representative Bustos, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) agreed to review the inmate deaths and include the prison in a broader report on deaths that have occurred in BOP custody.  OIG’s report is pending.  As of the writing of this letter, DOJ and BOP have issued no public findings holding perpetrators of misconduct accountable or, on the other hand, declaring that the USP Thomson allegations are unfounded.

“We are extremely concerned by OIA’s [BOP Office of Internal Affairs’] slow response to allegations of employee misconduct,” the lawmakers wrote.  “The safety of incarcerated individuals and BOP employees, as well as public confidence in our criminal justice system, depend on both timely investigations of employee misconduct and appropriate corrective action.  BOP must devote more of its $8 billion budget to timely processing misconduct complaints.”

The lawmakers’ letter continues, “As we communicated to each of you when you took office, the safe and effective operation of BOP facilities are one of our top priorities.  We implore you to act swiftly to ensure that that any BOP employee who has violated federal criminal or civil rights laws be held accountable.”

As Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Durbin has prioritized oversight of BOP facilities.  In April 2021, the Committee held a BOP oversight hearing with then-Director Carvajal to address chronic understaffing issues and other concerns.  In September 2022, the Committee held its second BOP oversight hearing under Chair Durbin, which was Director Peters first time testifying before Congress since taking over as head of the Bureau.  At that hearing, Durbin asked Director Peters about abuse in prisons.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a hearing entitled, “Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Prisons” for Wednesday, September 13, 2023, at 10:00 a.m. in Room 216 of the Hart Senate Office Building; Director Peters will again testify at the hearing.

Full text of today’s letter is available here and below:

September 6, 2023

Dear Attorney General Garland, Deputy Attorney General Monaco, and Director Peters:

We write to request information about serious allegations of abuse at United States Penitentiary (USP) Thomson in Illinois. Recently, the Washington Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs (WLC) published a report entitled “Cruel and Usual: An Investigation into Prison Abuse at USP Thomson.”[1] As part of its investigation, WLC collected accounts of extreme physical and psychological abuse from more than 120 incarcerated people in the former Special Management Unit (SMU) at USP Thomson. These accounts detailed shocking potential criminal and civil rights violations including abusive use of restraints, dangerous celling practices, inappropriate responses to mental health diagnoses, sexual assaults, racist verbal abuse, and interference with access to counsel and the inmate grievance process.

In addition to WLC’s report, last year, NPR and The Marshall Project reported extensively on the deaths of seven incarcerated men and serious alleged abuses by USP Thomson staff.[2] At the request of Senator Durbin, Senator Duckworth, and former Representative Bustos, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) agreed to review the inmate deaths and include the prison in a broader report on deaths that have occurred in Bureau of Prisons (BOP) custody.[3] OIG’s report is pending. As of the writing of this letter, DOJ and BOP have issued no public findings holding perpetrators of misconduct accountable or, on the other hand, declaring that the USP Thomson allegations are unfounded.

Last year, the Senate Judiciary Committee issued oversight letters[4] to DOJ and BOP requesting information about BOP employee misconduct generally and BOP employee sexual misconduct or abuse of incarcerated people. In response to these queries, DOJ provided the following information on Bureau-wide allegations of physical abuse of inmates derived from BOP Office of Internal Affairs (OIA) annual reports:

  • In FY2018, 474 allegations of physical abuse of inmates under 18 U.S.C. § 241 or 18 U.S.C. § 242 were either reported to the OIA or detected during the course of an investigation. As of October 16, 2018, a decision was made for 110 (23.2 percent) of those allegations.
  • In FY2019, 479 allegations of physical abuse of inmates under the same statutes were either reported to the OIA or detected during the course of an investigation. As of December 20, 2019, a decision was made for 184 (38.4 percent) of those allegations.
  • In FY2020, 608 allegations of physical abuse of inmates under the same statutes were either reported to the OIA or detected during the course of an investigation. As of March 17, 2021, a decision was made for 213 (35.0 percent) of those allegations.

DOJ provided the following information about allegations of sexual abuse or misconduct at USP Thomson, as of November 18, 2022:

  • In 2019, 11 investigations of staff-on-inmate sexual abuse were referred to OIG and zero of those closed cases were sustained.
  • In 2020, 18 investigations of staff-on-inmate sexual abuse were referred to OIG and zero of those closed cases were sustained.
  • In 2021, 13 investigations of staff-on-inmate sexual abuse were referred to OIG and zero of those closed cases were sustained.

We are extremely concerned by OIA’s slow response to allegations of employee misconduct. The safety of incarcerated individuals and BOP employees, as well as public confidence in our criminal justice system, depend on both timely investigations of employee misconduct and appropriate corrective action. BOP must devote more of its $8 billion budget to timely processing misconduct complaints.

The number and severity of complaints arising out of the SMU and USP Thomson in recent years point to systemic issues and demand a swift response by BOP and DOJ. To that end, we ask that you provide the following information no later than (3 weeks from the date of this letter):

  1. The number of allegations of physical abuse, verbal threats, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, and improper use of restraints in violation of BOP policy reported at USP Thomson from 2018 to the date of this letter.
  2. Of this number, the breakdown of complaints referred to OIG for investigation and those investigated internally by BOP OIA.
  3. Since 2018 to date of this letter, provide the number of closed investigations and open investigations with respect to allegations of physical abuse, verbal threats, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, and the improper use of restraints in violation of BOP policy at USP Thomson.
    1. For each closed investigation, specify whether the misconduct was sustained by OIG or OIA and the type of misconduct.
    2. For investigations that were closed as sustained, provide the disciplinary action taken.
    3. For investigations that remain open, provide all information as to whether the employees subject to investigation continue to supervise incarcerated individuals as part of their job responsibilities.
  4. Provide the average time it takes to close an investigation after initiation.

As we communicated to each of you when you took office, the safe and effective operation of BOP facilities are one of our top priorities. We implore you to act swiftly to ensure that that any BOP employee who has violated federal criminal or civil rights laws be held accountable.

We appreciate your prompt attention to this matter.

Sincerely,

-30-


[4] Chair Durbin, Ranking Member Grassley, Senator Feinstein, and Senator Padilla Letter to DOJ on BOP Employee Misconduct and Sexual Abuse dated February 23, 2022; Chair Durbin, Ranking Member Grassley, Senator Feinstein, and Senator Padilla Follow-Up Letter to DOJ on BOP Employee Misconduct dated December 12, 2022.

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