Bureau of Prisons Closes Notoriously Violent Unit

At least 7 inmates have died by homicide or suicide since Thomson unit opened in 2019
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 15, 2023 12:47 PM CST
Feds Closing Notoriously Violent Prison Unit
In this May 21, 2010 photo, a van drives past the Thomson Correctional Center in Thomson, Illinois.   (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)

One of the most notorious units in the federal prison system is being shut down after a series of inmate deaths. There have been at least five suspected homicides and two suspected suicides since the Special Management Unit at the Thomson federal penitentiary in northwest Illinois opened in 2019, NPR reports. The unit, which housed some of the most disruptive inmates from other federal prisons, "stoked conditions for violence" by locking inmates up in pairs for almost 24 hours a day, an NPR and Marshall Project investigation found last year. Inmates complained about abuses including having all four limbs shackled to their bunks for hours at a time.

Prison workers, especially female ones, had plenty of complaints about the unit as well, the New York Times reports. In a letter to Bureau of Prisons officials last month, the union representing workers at the prison said there had been 321 cases of "sexual misconduct against staff" in 2022, with inmates exposing themselves or masturbating in front employees, but staff "are getting no support from their employer in putting an end to this cycle." Officials say 300 prisoners in the general population unit will remain at Thomson, as well as around 130 inmates housed in a minimum security camp.

The approximately 350 inmates in the Special Management Unit will be transferred to other prisons, though they are likely to be placed in restricted units elsewhere instead of returning to the general population, a source tells the Times. Thomson was built as a state prison but it remained empty for years after it was completed in 2001. It was bought by the federal government in 2012, years after President Obama proposed housing Guantanamo inmates there. Attorneys and inmate advocates say closure of the SMU is "long overdue," but they hope to see it accompanied by broader changes in the prison system's culture. (More federal prison stories.)

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