THOMSON – Three Illinois Congressional representatives are calling for an immediate investigation into the deaths of seven Thomson federal prison inmates that have occurred since March 2020, and accusations of “serious abuses” by its staff.
In a letter Wednesday to the Justice Department’s Inspector General, the lawmakers cite a new report by National Public Radio and the Marshall Project that, if accurate, “describes conduct that would almost certainly contravene numerous BOP (Bureau of Prisons) policies, as well as infringing the civil rights of individuals in BOP custody and possibly violating federal criminal statutes,” and “raises serious and troubling allegations about the conduct of staff at USP Thomson,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, and Sens. Cheri Bustos and Tammy Duckworth, all Democrats, said in a news release Thursday.
The report’s most serious allegations include staff purposefully stoking tensions between cellmates, encouraging assaults against sex offenders and informants, and leaving men shackled to a bed for hours in their own urine and feces without food or water, the release said.
The report, released Tuesday, also says staff laughed at the expense of a Jewish man they were guarding as he lay dying following an assault that occurred after he was placed in a recreation cage with known white supremacists, the release said.
They also call for a probe of “any other allegations of abusive or dangerous conditions at USP Thomson that arise in the course of your investigation. In particular, we request that your investigation include the role that staffing shortages may have played in giving rise to the conditions in which the deaths and alleged abuses occurred.”
In response, Jon Zumkehr, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 4070, the prison union, issued this statement:
“We cannot comment on an ongoing investigation, but we have been fighting to full staff Thomson.
“We are currently short 105 staff members, including 78 from custody. We are committed to full staff USP Thomson and we have hosted monthly job fairs to bring new staff to Thomson.”
The Carroll County U.S. penitentiary now has 929 inmates, about 430 fewer than in March 2020.
Durbin, Duckworth, and Bustos also have worked to address low staffing at Thomson. In April 2021, they sent a letter to then-BOP Director Michael Carvajal urging BOP administrators to support the union’s request for a 25% retention bonus for nearly all Thomson staff, which the lawmakers also had been advocating for since 2020.
The bonus was approved five months later.
Also Thursday, Durbin said the committee will hold a hearing on the continued overuse of solitary confinement and restricted housing in federal prison facilities, including Thomson. About 7.8% of federal inmates are housed in a form of restricted housing, the release said.
The inmate deaths
The most recent inmate death at the Carroll County lockup was March 15. No cause of death was released at the time.
Of the six other inmates, at least four apparently were killed by other inmates, a fifth died of injuries from an unspecified source, and a sixth was ruled a suicide, his family said.
Two inmates are charged in one of the deaths.
Information on the other inmates’ causes of death were not available at press time.
“In general, for safety, security, and privacy reasons, this office does not share specifics regarding the cause of death for any inmate,” Thomson prison public information officer Nicole Vido said in reply to an email sent in March seeking more details.
“The official cause of death is determined by the medical examiner and not the Bureau of Prisons.”
According to the Department of Justice:
• James Everett, 35, was found unresponsive in an unspecified area of the prison and pronounced dead around 8:30 p.m. March 15. Everett had been at Thomson since Sept. 16, 2020, serving a 15-year sentenced levied in the Western District of Missouri for threatening a federal officer, forcibly resisting a federal officer and being a felon in possession of a firearm. No information on a cause of death was released.
• Matthew Phillips, 31, of Texas, was found unresponsive with life-threatening head injuries the morning of March 2, 2020. He was taken to a local hospital and pronounced dead 3 days later. He was sentenced to 7 years, 3 months for distributing heroin and money laundering, and had been at Thomson since September 2019.
In December, two inmates said to be white supremacists were indicted on murder and hate crime charges in the death of Phillips, who was Jewish, the Department of Justice said in a news release.
Brandon C. Simonson, 37, and Kristopher S. Martin, 37, members of the Valhalla Bound Skinheads, beat Phillips to death because of his religion, according to the indictment handed down by a federal grand jury in Rockford.
The two are charged with conspiracy to commit murder, second-degree murder, and hate crime, all of which carry up to life in prison, and assault resulting is serious bodily injury, which carries 10 years.
• Edsel Aaron Badoni, 37, of Blue Gap, Arizona, died around 2:30 p.m. Nov. 27, 2020 after a fight with another inmate. He was sentenced Feb. 13, 2018, to 13 years, 10 months for assault with a deadly weapon, assault resulting in serious bodily injury and discharging a firearm during a violent crime.
He was sent to Thomson on Nov. 25, 2019.
• A week later, on Dec. 3, 2020, Boyd Weekley, 49, of South Dakota, was found unresponsive at 2:30 p.m., also after a fight with another inmate. He was taken to a local hospital and pronounced dead.
Weekley was serving a life sentence for a Western District of Michigan conviction on kidnapping and transportation of a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity.
He had been in Thomson since Feb. 25, 2020.
• Two weeks later, on Dec. 18, 2020, Patrick Bacon, 36, was found unresponsive in his cell around midnight. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital.
His death was ruled a suicide, his mother, Shelley Bacon, told Sauk Valley Media.
Bacon was serving a 10-year sentence levied in California for assault with a dangerous weapon with intent to do bodily harm, aiding and abetting, and assault resulting in serious bodily injury.
According to records from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Bacon was imprisoned in Victorville Federal Prison in California when he stabbed another inmate with a metal shank, fracturing the man’s sinus cavity and causing stab wounds to his head and chest. Bacon was appealing the conviction because he had not been allowed to employ an insanity defense.
He had been in custody at Thomson since Oct. 14, 2020.
• On Feb 28, 2021, Shay Paniry, 41, an Israeli mobster from of of Studio City, California, was found in an unspecified area, with life-threatening injuries.
Paniry, who arrived at the prison on Oct. 14, 2020, was sentenced to 17 years, 6 months for conspiracy to launder money, possession with intent to distribute cocaine and interfering with commerce.
• On Dec. 15, 2021, around 10:30 p.m., Bobby Everson, 36, was found unresponsive following a fight. He was taken to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
A second inmate, who was not named, was medically assessed but had no injuries, the prison said in a news release. No staff or other inmates were injured.
Everson was serving a 13-year, 2-month sentence for conspiracy to engage in racketeering, possession with intent to distribute cocaine, and felon in possession of a firearm, levied in the Northern District of New York.
He had been at Thomson since July 1, 2021.
The full text of the letter to the Department of Justice Inspector General
Dear Inspector General Horowitz:
We respectfully request that your office immediately open an investigation into allegations included in a disturbing report published by NPR and the Marshall Project concerning the deaths of seven incarcerated men and serious abuses by staff at the United States Penitentiary Thomson (USP Thomson) in Illinois.
Five of the deaths were reportedly the result of homicides by fellow Special Management Unit (SMU) residents; the remaining two were suicides. The article’s most serious allegations include:
• Staff purposefully stoking tensions between cellmates and intentionally pairing men whom they knew would attack each other;
• Staff encouraging assaults against sex offenders and informants and falsely telling residents that a particular man was a sex offender, resulting in repeated physical and sexual assaults against him;
• Abusive shackling leaving scars known as “the Thomson tattoo,” sometimes in a room known as “the dungeon” or “the torture room,” where men would lie shackled to a bed for hours in their own urine and feces without food or water;
• The continuation of abusive behavior towards incarcerated persons after the SMU was transferred to USP Thomson;
• Punishment (often by shackling) of men who refused to be housed with cellmates whom they believed would kill them;
• The highest rate of pepper-spray usage in the Bureau of Prisons (BOP); and
• Staff laughing and joking at the expense of a Jewish man they were guarding as he lay dying in a hospital following an assault that occurred after staff placed him in a recreation cage with known white supremacists.
If these reports prove accurate, they describe conduct that would almost certainly contravene numerous BOP policies, as well as infringing the civil rights of individuals in BOP custody and possibly violating federal criminal statutes.
The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) is responsible for protecting the integrity of Department of Justice components, including BOP, as well as the health and safety of the people in BOP custody. The NPR and Marshall Project report raises serious and troubling allegations about the conduct of staff at USP Thomson.
As such, it is imperative that you investigate the allegations detailed in the NPR and Marshall Project report, as well as any other allegations of abusive or dangerous conditions at USP Thomson that arise in the course of your investigation. In particular, we request that your investigation include the role that staffing shortages may have played in giving rise to the conditions in which the deaths and alleged abuses occurred. We have long fought to address the staffing crisis at USP Thomson and throughout BOP, repeatedly warning that failure to do so could result in catastrophe. We are deeply troubled that these warnings seem to have proved accurate.
Thank you for your consideration of this request. We look forward to your prompt response.