Opinion: A deep dive into the “Special Management Unit” of the deadliest prison in America
Could you imagine being locked in a room with someone who doesn’t share any of the same views as you? Now picture that person angry and reacting violently to the mere thought of your religious beliefs or culture. Additionally, all four of your limbs are chained to the four corners of a concrete bed; you have nowhere to go and no one to call for help. For inmates in the Special Management Unit (SMU) at Thomson Federal Penitentiary in Illinois, this is not a stretch of the imagination. I recently read an article about this prison by Christie Thompson and Joseph Shapiro and was sickened by what they reported. I have worked closely with inmates from the county level to federal prisons and know the realities of “life on the inside.” I have to wonder how, in 2023, we are still being treated with brutality and torture for disobeying the law and why our government leaders have buried their heads in the sand from the seven death cases and countless lawsuits against the newest but deadliest prison in the United States.
The Special Management Unit is known to house some of the most dangerous and hostile inmates in the country. In 2018, the Unit moved from “The Big House,” a century-old prison camp located in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, in order to “increase capacity,” but the conditions have only seemed to worsen. With almost 2,000 inmates in this unit and only 1,200 beds available, many of these men are confined to 58-square-foot cells in pairs. While the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) claims that “double-celling” mitigates suicide attempts, it seems to have opened the door to countless assaults and ruthless killings of other men in the unit.
In fact, there have been seven death cases at Thomson in just over two years. The crisis seemed to begin after Matthew Phillips, a Jewish inmate, was locked in a recreation cage with two members of a white supremacist gang. He was brutally beaten and sent to the hospital where his parents were limited to ten-minute visits, one at a time, while guards inside the room and in the hospital’s hallway mocked Phillips and made jokes at his expense. He died on March 5, 2020, three days after the beating. The next three deaths came in November and December of 2020. Edsel Aaron Badoni died of stab wounds after a fight with another inmate, and Boyd Weekley and Patrick Bacon allegedly died by suicide. Just two months later, in February of 2021, Shay Paniry was stabbed to death by another inmate. In December of 2021, a New Yorker by the name of Bobby Everson, had already written his family numerous times, advising them of the poor conditions and looming threats of violence against him by his cellmate. Shortly after, he was found dead in his cell of multiple blunt force trauma. Most recently was the suspicious death of James Everett who was also found dead in his cell of a suspected homicide. His body was returned to his family with scars on both wrists, better known to many inmates as the “Thompson tattoo,” or scarring of the wrists made by excessively tight hand-cuffing. Of those inmates who were fortunate enough to survive the SMU, they have seen 167 recorded assaults at Thomson between January 2019 and October 2021. The “rehabilitation” these men are to receive seems to be ineffective, as well. It was reported that at least seven people were involved in homicides after being released from Lewisburg’s Special Management Unit.
So, what is the problem with Thomson and the Special Management Unit? It appears as though understaffing and overpopulation are the two biggest factors in this outburst of extreme violence. According to Thompson and Shapiro, as of May of 2021, more than 30% of Thomson’s correctional officer jobs were unfilled, in part due to the hiring freeze under former President Donald Trump. As a result, many counselors, cooks, and other non-officer employees were recruited to work as guards, and while they were trained, they lacked the day-to-day experience that a typical officer obtains over time. Another factor seems to be the excessive force used by the corrections staff. Inmates are shackled so tightly with cuffs that they are left with permanent nerve damage and that infamous “Thomson tattoo.” Others allege that they are put in paper clothing, denied food and water for extensive periods of time, and forced to urinate on themselves when “four-pointed” or put in ambulatory restraints. It is claimed that guards fabricate reasons to justify this type of discipline, and between January 2019 and August 2020, they deployed emergency pepper spray at least 231 times, 72 more times than the second-highest-use facility. Moreover, we must remember that many inmates in this unit are arguably some of the most mentally ill men in the prison system, and these men are most often not getting the mental health treatment or psychiatric medication crucial for their recovery and overall well-being.
I had to wonder if our nation’s leaders were doing anything about this problem and learned that very few actually are. One man who has addressed this issue, however, is Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, who is chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and part of a new group that investigates federal prison operations and works to strengthen prison oversight. In January of last year, he called for the resignation of Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal, and Durbin is pushing for a “reform-minded” leader to take Carvajal’s place. The Bureau of Prisons notes that it dedicates a team of prison officials who consider things like gang affiliation, religion, geography, and past incident reports and complaints when assigning inmate housing; although the case of Matthew Phillips makes me question this so-called team’s competence or even existence.
Unfortunately, this is not the only prison nor the only problem plaguing our criminal justice system. From arrest to conviction, appeal to lockup, there are many circumstances that tip the scale in favor of the government, keeping our prisons overcrowded and tax dollars disappearing from our pockets. With the United States currently housing more than two million inmates, it leads the world in lockups and more than doubles the incarceration rate of the second-highest country in prison population. Although I agree that behind bars, we should not be afforded all the freedoms and rights of those who are among the general population, I think it is important to remember that we still should be provided certain rights under the United States Constitution, including the right against cruel and unusual punishment; the right to practice religion; the right against excessive bail; and the right to due process of the law. There are also those advantages that prosecutors have over criminal defendants during a trial that make our system unjust and unfair. To get a clearer picture, check out my blog post entitled “Defendants Doomed.” Over the next several weeks, I will break down the glitches in our criminal justice system but also highlight major improvements that some jurisdictions have undergone to ensure a fair process for both the government and criminal defendants alike.
Today, I presented one of the deadliest prisons in the United States and highlighted the problems with the Federal Special Management Unit as it is today. I introduced you to specific cases that led to the brutal deaths of seven men serving time in the Unit, and I spoke of what the Bureau of Prisons and Illinois Senator Dick Durbin are doing in response to this crisis. I urge you to check out the article or visit a credible criminal reform site, such as the ACLU or REFORM Alliance. We cannot always make the world a safer place, but we can take steps to ensure that our prisons are protected for both their employees and inmates alike. Let’s turn our country’s prisons back into centers of rehabilitation, not reincarceration.