Contact: Gregg Kelley, Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, Gregg_Kelley@washlaw.org, 202-319-1070
WASHINGTON- The closure of the Special Management Unit at United States Penitentiary Thomson is a welcome and important first step to reduce the use of harsh solitary confinement practices in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. In a yearlong investigation of Thomson that included consistent reports of abuse from over 100 individuals imprisoned there and interviews with more than 50 of those people, we found:
- Excessive periods of isolation;
- Dangerous and prolonged restraint– often days long use of four-point restraint in the supine position. Many people reported spending hours or days in their own excrement, and in some cases the excrement of the person who had been restrained in the chair previously. Restraints were used so frequently and for such prolonged periods that persons confined to Thomson referred to the scarring on their wrists, ankles, and stomachs as the “Thomson tattoo;”
- Unnecessary and excessive force by staff;
- Retaliation and threats of retaliation by staff including physical force, abuse of the discipline system, and labelling incarcerated individuals as sex offenders who have never been convicted of a sex based offense in a court of law, thereby increasing the threat to their safety in prison, and
- A failure of internal systems to detect and prevent abuse. Reports from incarcerated persons and their advocates were ignored and never investigated or addressed.
The Washington Lawyers’ Committee, Latham & Watkins LLP, Levy Firestone Muse LLP, and Uptown People’s Law Center represent more than 100 individuals regarding their treatment at USP Thomson. In the course of our representation, we investigated reports of abuse by staff in the Special Management Unit (SMU) and Reintegration Unit (RU) at the Bureau of Prisons United States Penitentiary Thomson (USP Thomson). Our interviews of more than 50 individuals imprisoned there revealed stories of shocking abuse. Moreover, there was a remarkable consistency in the reports from persons who did not know each other and had no means to coordinate their stories. During the course of our investigation, we reported the worst of these abuses to the Bureau of Prisons and to the Department of Justice.
On February 14, 2023, the Federal Bureau of Prisons announced that it recently identified significant concerns with respect to institutional culture and compliance with BOP policies at USP Thomson, that these issues are having a detrimental impact on facility operations, and that there is a need for immediate corrective measures. Through our investigation, we know that the culture and lack of compliance with BOP policies has also had devastating consequences for the individuals imprisoned there who lived in fear and suffered physical and emotional harm.
The Special Management Unit at Thomson was opened to replace a similar unit at the federal prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. The Lewisburg prison experienced many of the same abuses. The Special Management Unit program in the Bureau of Prisons is cruel and vulnerable to abuse in its design and it should be abolished. Across the nation, state prison systems are safely and effectively reducing their use of solitary confinement in prisons, especially for persons with mental illness and developmental disabilities. We call on the Bureau of Prisons to do the same.
“We applaud any effort to move the individuals incarcerated in the SMU and RU to new facilities, where we hope they will be safe and a culture of abuse will not be permitted to develop again,” said Maggie Hart, Senior Counsel of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. “Those who have been transferred are already profoundly relieved to be out of Thomson. We would also like to acknowledge that this change would not have happened if it were not for the bravery of the individuals imprisoned in the SMU and RU at USP Thomson who came forward to report the abuses despite fear of retaliation.”
Latham & Watkins partner Kevin Metz said, “The decision by the BOP to end the use of these harsh and abusive practices at USP Thomson is a welcome first step to ending these practices nationwide. Instituting an effective and meaningful process of oversight and accountability for corrections facilities and their employees is an important next step. We are pleased that the BOP took our clients’ concerns and our investigative findings seriously.”
Levy Firestone Muse LLP partner Joshua A. Levy said, “No one should ever have to experience the violence, depravity, and cruelty that the USP Thomson staff forced our clients and too many others to endure. We hope BOP’s announcement is a sign of enhanced attention, oversight and action on the part of the Department of Justice. The Washington Lawyers’ Committee should be commended for ferreting out this perversion of justice, where the caretakers had become the torturers.”
“Closing the Special Management Unit at Thomson and ending these heinous human rights violations was long overdue. However, we are concerned about where prisoners will be taken next. While this unit at Thomson was particularly egregious, there is no good solitary unit, because solitary confinement is torture, and causes long-term negative effects on people’s mental health. We call on President Biden and Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons Ms. Peters to end solitary confinement across the nation,” said Alan Mills, Executive Director of Uptown People’s Law Center.
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ABOUT THE WASHINGTON LAWYERS’ COMMITTEE: Founded in 1968, 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. For more information, please visit www.washlaw.org or call 202.319.1000. Follow us on Twitter at @WashLaw4CR.
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ABOUT LEVY FIRESTONE MUSE LLP: Levy Firestone Muse LLP is a boutique law firm specializing in litigation, investigations and criminal defense. The firm is headquartered in Washington, DC, services clients around the world, and was designed to help people within our local, national and global communities. For more information, please visit levyfirestone.com.
ABOUT UPTOWN PEOPLE’S LAW CENTER: is a nonprofit legal services organization specializing in prisoners’ rights, Social Security disability, and tenants’ rights and eviction defense. UPLC currently has six class action lawsuits against the Illinois Department of Corrections.