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3rd USP Thomson guard hospitalized following drug exposure, union president confirms

Rep. Bustos and Sen. Durbin sent a letter to the Bureau of Prisons Friday about unsafe working conditions for those who process mail in prisons.

THOMSON, Ill. — Editor's note: The video above is from April 7, 2022. 

Another guard at U.S. Penitentiary Thomson has been hospitalized following a drug exposure in the prison's mailroom Friday, according to AFGE Local 4070 President Jon Zumkehr. 

According to Zumkehr, the mail tested positive for amphetamines. The staffer was treated at a nearby hospital and released. 

USP Thomson confirmed two drug exposures among guards last month that resulted in hospitalizations. The prison told News 8 on Friday that there would not be a press release that day for the latest incident.

This news comes on the same day that U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos (IL-17) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) sent a letter to the Federal Bureau of Prisons outlining their concerns regarding unsafe working conditions in the federal correctional system. 

In the letter, Durbin and Bustos cite a Department of Justice report that found smuggling techniques can include contraband being "sprayed onto paper, incorporated into ink, hidden under stamps, and inconspicuously concealed within a piece of correspondence."

RELATED: After several attacks on staff, Thomson prison union pleads for more employees

Bustos and Durbin urge the BOP to review and update its policies and guidance to better protect those opening inmates' mail. They cite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidance for emergency responders to mitigate the risk of exposure to illicit drugs.

The letter says the CDC recommends emergency responders wear nitrile gloves as well as respiratory protection when drugs may be present. However, BOP manuals and guidance "lack clarity regarding how to protect BOP personnel against exposure to illicit drugs," according to the letter. 

WATCH: Union asks for more protections for officers, drug detection equipment at USP Thomson

The full text of the letter sent to BOP is written out below: 

"Dear Director Carvajal:

"We write with concern about reports of unsafe conditions for correctional officers in opening mail for incarcerated persons. We know that it is critical for incarcerated persons to have access to correspondence while serving their sentences. Unfortunately, mail is also one of the ways in which drug contraband can be brought into correctional facilities. In light of these challenges, we write to request information regarding how policies may be improved to better protect correctional officers who process incoming mail and to ensure that incarcerated individuals are able to correspond with their families and friends.

"Incarcerated persons must be able to receive personal correspondence while they are incarcerated, whether such correspondence is from family members, public officials, or their legal representatives. The vast majority of incarcerated persons in the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) will return to their communities after serving their sentences, and correspondence plays an important role in ensuring that these individuals will be able to successfully reintegrate into society upon release.1

"In 2020, the BOP initiated a pilot program to convert mail to electronic scans at some BOP facilities, reportedly to combat drug smuggling through correspondence. As described in a recent report funded by the Department of Justice and available through the Office of Justice Programs, smuggling techniques can include drug contraband being “sprayed onto paper, incorporated into ink, hidden under stamps, and inconspicuously concealed within a piece of correspondence.”2 However, while digitized mail may be effective as a drug interdiction method, the process also raises significant concerns, including reports of mail inexplicably being returned to senders, privacy issues, impeded access to educational materials, and extremely low quality scans.3,

"We were also troubled by reports that over the past two months, two correctional officers at U.S. Penitentiary (USP) Thomson required medical attention after purportedly being exposed to illegal drugs while opening the mail. As BOP seeks to intercept contraband arriving in prisons through the mail, these recent incidents at USP Thomson suggest that BOP should review and update its policies and guidance to better protect officers responsible for opening correspondence.

"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have explicit guidance for emergency responders to mitigate the risk of exposure to illicit drugs. For example, the CDC recommend that emergency responders wear nitrile gloves when illicit drugs may be present and respiratory protection if powdered illicit drugs are visible or suspected. In contrast, BOP manuals and guidance lack clarity regarding how to protect BOP personnel against exposure to illicit drugs. For example, the Bureau’s Mail Management Manual states, “The mail room staff will notify the CMC (Case Management Coordinator) when mail handling problems arise which are not clearly defined.”4 The Manual does not define how correctional officers should safely open mail that potentially contains drug contraband.

"Given these concerns, we request that you answer the following questions and requests for information no later than close of business on Monday, May 16.

"The CDC lay out clear and specific guidelines for emergency responders to prevent exposures to illicit drugs. What guidelines and/or regulations are in place to similarly protect BOP correctional officers and other staff that may participate in the mail opening process?

"The Mail Management Manual notes: “Staff are required to open and inspect all inmate mail and packages prior to distribution… Local procedures, contained in the Institution Supplement, must be developed to ensure inspection procedures are performed.” Similarly, the Correspondence manual notes: “The Warden shall establish and exercise controls to protect individuals, and the security, discipline, and good order of the institution… [which requires] flexibility in correspondence procedures. All Wardens shall establish open general correspondence procedures.”5 What guidance is BOP providing to individual institutions and Wardens to assist in developing their Institution Supplements to balance access to mail with drug interdiction and correctional officer safety?

"The Bureau’s Correspondence manual notes: “Each Institution must update its Institution Supplement (IS) and forward a copy to the Regional Correctional Program Administrator.” The IS must include procedures for monitoring incoming and outgoing mail, including inspection of mail. What procedures does BOP have in place to ensure each IS adequately protects correctional officers from potential exposure to drug contraband when inspecting correspondence? Has BOP ever rejected an IS because it failed to adequately protect correctional officers from potential exposure to drug contraband when inspecting correspondence?

"Please provide the number of correctional officers injured, hospitalized, or temporarily removed from the line of duty due to reported exposure to drug contraband or other foreign substances when opening correspondence from 2017 to present day. Please provide any and all records of incidents reported by mail room staff from 2017 to present day in Illinois BOP correctional facilities related to safe handling of correspondence containing drug contraband.

"At which BOP facilities has the pilot program implementing digitized mail been implemented? Has BOP assessed the effectiveness of this program? If so, what metrics has BOP used to gauge its effectiveness?

"Under the pilot program implementing digitized mail, what steps has BOP taken to balance drug interdiction strategies with privacy concerns regarding opening legal correspondence or correspondence from public officials?

"Under the pilot program implementing digitized mail, what steps has BOP taken to ensure the readability and quality of images and text and the ability for incarcerated persons to archive their mail? How has the pilot program impacted family and community ties between incarcerated persons and their loved ones, which have been historically fostered through the sharing of children’s art, family photographs, and other physical mementos?

"We have received reports that federal regulations pertaining to the handling of special mail6 are not uniformly adhered to, including when mail properly identifies that the sender is a Member of Congress or that the mail pertains to legal matters. As BOP works to mitigate drug contraband in the mail, how will BOP ensure adherence to federal regulations so that special mail is only opened in the presence of an inmate and is neither read nor photocopied by correctional staff?

Thank you for your attention to this important request."

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