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Justice Department Inspector General launches investigation into USP Thomson

The investigation comes after Illinois lawmakers called on the DOJ to look into allegations of abuse by prison staff and deaths among inmates.

THOMSON, Ill. — The U.S. Department of Justice Inspector General has launched an investigation into U.S. Penitentiary Thomson following the release of a "disturbing" report from NPR and the Marshall Project, which detailed the deaths of several incarcerated men and alleged abuse by prison staff.

After the report's release, U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth and U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos sent a letter to the DOJ calling for an immediate investigation into allegations against USP Thomson. That happened just a week ago. 

The letter acknowledges the death of seven incarcerated men, five reportedly a result of homicides by fellow inmates and two were suicides.

"We fully support the investigation into the allegations into USP Thomson and we have also invited Sen. Durbin and Sen. Duckworth to visit USP Thomson," AFGE Local 4070 President Jon Zumkehr in a statement on Thursday. 

RELATED: Illinois lawmakers call for investigation into inmate deaths, staff abuse allegations at USP Thomson

Back in May 2020, the union said a staff shortage at the prison was resulting in unsafe working conditions as other workers, like nurses, psychologists and cooks, were forced to fill in as correctional officers. Over 2,000 overtime shifts were being authorized every month just to keep up with daily prison functions. 

This year alone, three staff members have been hospitalized for drug exposure in the prison’s mailroom in a two-month timespan, causing the union to call for stronger protections to be put in place for mailroom employees.

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

In addition to understaffing and inmate deaths, Durbin, Duckworth and Bustos drew attention to several allegations of staff abuse in the letter to DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz. 

Here are some of the allegations:

  • Staff purposely stoked tensions between cellmates and paired together men they know would attack each other.
  • Staff encouraged assaults against sex offenders and informants.
  • Abusive shackling left scars known as “the Thomson tattoo,” sometimes in a room known as the “torture room,” where men would lie shackled to a bed for hours in their own urine and feces without food or water.
  • Staff laughed and joked at the expense of a Jewish man as he lay dying in a hospital following an assault that occurred after staff placed him in a recreation cage with known white supremacists.
  • USP Thomson had the highest pepper spray usage out of all facilities within the Bureau of Prisons.
  • Staff punished men who refused to be housed with cellmates they believed would kill them.

WATCH | Union representing USP Thomson workers requests changes to how mail comes in 

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