Pro Bono Investigation Leads to Relocation of Incarcerated Individuals
For nearly a year, a cross-office team of nearly two dozen lawyers and paralegals at Latham have been working with the Uptown People’s Law Center and Washington Lawyers’ Committee to investigate the conditions and treatment of people in the “Special Management Unit” at United States Penitentiary (USP) Thomson, a high-security federal prison located in western Illinois. The investigation found widespread abuse of incarcerated people and multiple violations of the US Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) own policies. On February 14, 2023, the BOP announced that it would shut down the unit at USP Thomson, citing “ a need for immediate corrective measures” to address concerns with “institutional culture and compliance with BOP polices.” Incarcerated individuals will be moved to other facilities.
Over multiple visits and interviews, the team received consistent reports of abuse from more than 100 individuals imprisoned at USP Thomson. The team discovered:
- Excessive periods of isolation
- Dangerous and prolonged restraint, with many people reporting spending hours or days in their own excrement and, in some cases, the excrement of the person who had been restrained in the chair previously. Restraints were used so frequently and for such prolonged periods that persons confined to Thomson referred to the scarring on their wrists, ankles, and stomachs as the “Thomson tattoo.”
- Unnecessary and excessive force by staff
- Retaliation and threats of retaliation by staff, including physical force, abuse of the discipline system, and labelling as sex offenders incarcerated individuals who had never been convicted of a sex based offense in a court of law, thereby increasing the threat to their safety in prison.
- A failure of internal systems to detect and prevent abuse. Reports from incarcerated persons and their advocates were ignored and never investigated or addressed.
Through their interviews, incarcerated individuals at USP Thomson revealed stories of shocking abuse. Moreover, there was a remarkable consistency in the reports from persons who did not know each other and had no means to coordinate their stories. During the course of our lawyers’ investigation, the worst abuses were reported to the BOP and to the US Department of Justice. A similar unit at USP Lewisburg in Pennsylvania was previously shutdown, following litigation by another Latham team.
Latham partner Kevin Metz said, “The decision by the BOP to end the use of these harsh and abusive practices at USP Thomson is a welcome first step to ending these practices nationwide. Instituting an effective and meaningful process of oversight and accountability for corrections facilities and their employees is an important next step. We are pleased that the BOP took our clients’ concerns and our investigative findings seriously.”
In addition to Kevin Metz, the Latham team included partners Mary Rose Alexander and Drew Wisniewski; associates Hilary Albrecht, Jamie Friedland, Richard Frohlichstein, Jen Goldshtein, Sarah Grimsdale, Kristen Haught, Kevin Jakopchek, Michelle Kim, Eunice Kabuga, Anna Karnaze, Anna LeBleu, Sean Mulloy, Brooke Padgett, Matthew Piehl, Priya Purohit, Shenu Reddy, Lachanda Reid, Jake Rush, Autumn Schmidt, Serena Su, and Taylor Zarth; and paralegals Verlean Towns and Lyn Walsh.