After officials closed a violent federal prison unit in Illinois, a new report provides more accounts of the culture of abuse inside and prompted calls for an investigation of the officers involved. On Thursday, The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs published a report compiling the stories of more than 120 people who were incarcerated in the Special Management Unit, a high-security section of the Thomson Penitentiary 150 miles west of Chicago. Echoing many of the findings of an earlier investigation by The Marshall Project and NPR, many people described being beaten by officers while in shackles, a dangerous dearth of mental health care, and a system that made it impossible to file complaints, The Marshall Project reports. “We found rampant racism, and many people who were subjected to unnecessary restraint and forced to cell with another individual who was known to be dangerous,” said Maggie Hart of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee. Five men died by suspected homicide in the special management unit at Thomson. The federal Bureau of Prisons closed the unit in February after officials found “significant concerns with respect to institutional culture.” Roughly 350 people were sent to prisons across the U.S., where many of them report still being held in solitary confinement, according to the Lawyers’ Committee.
More than 25 people interviewed in the new report reached out after they were moved. Many who corresponded with attorneys while at Thomson said they suffered retaliation, such as having their property destroyed or being forced into painful shackles that left scars. Much of the committee’s findings are based on first-hand accounts, which described abuse in detail and named many of the same guards as abusers. Prison bureau spokesperson Emery Nelson said he could not comment on “anecdotal allegations” or individual cases, but that there were “no plans at this time” to reopen the Special Management Unit. Bureau Director Colette Peters, who took over the agency last August and closed the unit, said she was committed to “swiftly” addressing misconduct.” Many people who were incarcerated at Thomson told the Lawyers’ Committee that officers made it impossible to file complaints, by denying them the needed forms or throwing the documents in the trash. Under federal law, people in prison who accuse guards of mistreatment must go through an internal grievance process before they can sue. Even if someone was able to submit a grievance, a federal audit found the Bureau of Prisons is too understaffed to investigate adequately. Nelson said the Office of Internal Investigations is being restructured to increase transparency and oversight and has hired more than 50 new investigators.