WASHINGTON – An investigation into the treatment of people imprisoned in the “Special Management Unit” at the US Penitentiary in Thomson, Illinois, found a widespread culture of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse for which the Federal Bureau of Prisons has failed to hold anyone accountable, according to a report released today by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, Uptown People’s Law Center, and Levy Firestone Muse LLP.
Cruel and Usual: An Investigation into Prison Abuse at USP Thomson documents the findings of an 18-month investigation based on interviews with more than 100 people imprisoned there from 2021 to 2023. The BOP shut down the unit in February 2023, but has failed to bring disciplinary or any other actions against anyone responsible.
Among many examples of abuse described in the report:
- Officials at Thomson forced Kareem Louis into a cell with an individual they knew was dangerous. The cellmate stabbed Louis in the hands, back, arms, and neck, then raped him while he was unconscious.
- When Daryl Hickson objected to a cell assignment because of a conflict with his cellmate, a white guard told him, “You either kill or be killed.” The guard then added, “You’re going back in that cell to get killed, “n****r.” When Hickson continued to object, officials dragged him to the restraint room where they shackled and stretched all four of his limbs and left him that way for hours.
- B. attempted suicide nine times in the special management unit. Once, after telling staff he had swallowed excess pills, guards restrained him to a chair for 24 hours. He was denied food, water, and access to a toilet the entire time.
- When S., who is transgender, filed a handwritten complaint about her treatment, officials placed her in a cell with an openly anti-LGBTQIA cellmate, who beat her, at the officials’ behest.
“The complete lack of any accountability is astounding,” said Jacqueline Kutnik-Bauder, Deputy Legal Director, Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs. “As far as we can tell, not one person has been disciplined or faced criminal charges related to the abuses in the special management unit. Rather than being held accountable, many of the staff have simply been moved to new facilities within the Federal Bureau of Prisons—often the same facilities as their former victims.
“Ending systemic abuses should be a priority,” said Kevin Metz, Latham & Watkins LLP, which acted as counsel to the investigation. “The Bureau of Prisons should not close Lewisburg and open Thomson, only to later close the second for the same types of violations. The only way to stop this kind of pervasive corruption and injustice is to follow federal law, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, and implement the types of comprehensive system-wide reform outlined in the report.”
“We have seen firsthand people scarred for life by restraints that were too tight on their ankles, stomachs, and wrists,” said Alan Mills, Executive Director, Uptown People’s Law Center. “People were left in these restraints without any food, water, or access to a toilet, for hours and even days. The permanent scars left by this were so common that survivors refer to them as the ‘Thomson Tattoo.’ If federal employees inflicted this horrific abuse on any other person, they would face serious repercussions. People in prison are still people.”
“Federal Bureau of Prisons employees tortured people,” said Joshua A. Levy, Partner, Levy Firestone Muse LLP. “The Department of Justice knows what happened. It needs to hold the torturers accountable and eliminate the culture that allowed these heinous acts.”
Cruel and Usual documents the findings of an 18-month investigation by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs, Latham & Watkins LLP, Levy Firestone Muse LLP, and Uptown People’s Law Center. Based on 120 interviews and a review of medical and other institutional records, investigators found:
- 241 acts of physical violence by guards at Thomson.
- 178 individual incidents of guards using restraints as a form of punishment or torture.
- 136 separate incidents of retaliation by guards.
- 39 people who guards assaulted while in restraints.
- 41 individuals reported being forced to cell with someone who posed a threat to them.
- 43 people with serious mental illnesses, such as depression and schizophrenia, were held in the SMU in violation of the BOP’s policies.
- 19 incidents of guards sexually assaulting individuals.
- 15 individuals attempted suicide, in some cases as many as 9 times.
- 13 people guards held in four-point restraints for 24-96 hours straight.
- Sex and gender-based violence to people who were restrained.
- Incidents involving four-point restraints that restrict and stretch a person’s four limbs leaving scars known as a “Thomson Tattoo.”
- Use of restraint chairs that place the equivalent of a full body harness on people by shackling their chest, ankles, wrists, and arms, causing shaking, numbness, and temporary paralysis.
- Rampant racism and derogatory racial terms, such as the “n” word, boy, slave, and monkey, by predominantly white guards to a population of that was predominantly people of color.
- Ongoing intentional interference with access to attorneys and the courts.
The report calls for comprehensive systemwide reform. The five key recommendations from the report include:
- Opening of a criminal investigation into the abuses in the SMU by the Department of Justice.
- An immediate end to the SMU and the implementation of strict limits on the use of other forms of restrictive housing in the BOP.
- Strict limits and mandatory monitoring and review of the use of restraints throughout the BOP.
- Creation of a meaningful accessible administrative process for people held in the BOP to have complaints about their conditions or abuse by staff reviewed.
- Creation of an independent external oversight body regarding the use of restraints, solitary confinement, and other forms of “restrictive housing.”
The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs works to create legal, economic, and social equity through litigation, client and public education and public policy advocacy. While we fight discrimination against all people, we recognize the central role that current and historic race discrimination plays in sustaining inequity and recognize the critical importance of identifying, exposing, combatting, and dismantling the systems that sustain racial oppression.
Latham & Watkins LLP delivers innovative solutions to complex legal and business challenges around the world. From a global platform, our lawyers advise clients on market-shaping transactions, high-stakes litigation and trials, and sophisticated regulatory matters. Latham is one of the world’s largest providers of pro bono services, steadfastly supports initiatives designed to advance diversity within the firm and the legal profession and is committed to exploring and promoting environmental sustainability.
Uptown People’s Law Center (UPLC) is a nonprofit legal organization specializing in prisoners’ rights, Social Security disability, and tenants’ rights. UPLC currently has six active class action lawsuits regarding jail and prison conditions.
Levy Firestone Muse LLP is a litigation and white-collar criminal defense law firm in Washington, D.C.