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Federal Bureau of Prisons is closing its deadliest unit over violence, abuse reports


The special management unit at the Thomson Penitentiary in Illinois is one of the deadliest prison units in America.


Which we know because of reporting by NPR in conjunction with The Marshall Project. Now, because of those dangerous conditions, the Federal Bureau of Prisons is shutting this facility down.

KHALID: NPR investigative correspondent Joseph Shapiro helped uncover what was happening at Thomson, and he's here with us now. Good morning, Joe.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Good morning, Asma.

KHALID: So, Joe, remind us what your reporting discovered.

SHAPIRO: Well, we found that Thomson, which is the newest federal prison, had quickly become, as you said, one of the deadliest. Five prisoners killed, two suicides in just two years. And by the way, there was another death just this month.

KHALID: Oh, wow.

SHAPIRO: And our reporting focused on the cause of this violence, which was a culture of abuse by staff that the Bureau of Prisons says is the reason that it's now shutting down this unit. And this is reporting I did with Christie Thompson of The Marshall Project. A key moment to our reporting came when a prisoner named Demetrius Hill sent us a note that he'd witnessed one prisoner attacking and killing another. And...

KHALID: Oh, my gosh.

SHAPIRO: ...That the attacker, he had warned the guards he was going to kill his cellmate, a small man named Bobby Everson, who was known as Loopy. And even on the night of the killing, he said he was about to kill Loopy. And our eyewitness, Demetrius Hill, says the corrections officer said, go ahead; just do it. And here's tape from Hill when we got to speak to him from prison.

DEMETRIUS HILL: To force this kid in a cell with this mad man, they knew the result. He had just beaten another prisoner who had been in the cell with him. I'm talking about maybe two weeks, maybe two weeks prior, another prisoner - I don't know his name - and he was beating that inmate for days on end. Days on end he was beating that prisoner. Finally, they took him out and stuffed Loopy in there.

KHALID: Wow. A very powerful story, Joe. I mean, after all of your reporting, there were calls for investigations from Illinois Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, as well as human rights and religious groups. Where did all that go?

SHAPIRO: Well, the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation, and so did the Federal Bureau of Prisons. And now the BOP says it found persistent problems with what it called institutional culture and compliance with BOP policies - in other words, problems that were so deep, so rotten, that they couldn't even be fixed. There's a new director at the Federal Prison Agency, Colette Peters, and this is one of her first big moves.

KHALID: So what happens next, Joe? I mean, my understanding from your reporting is that this unit was supposed to be the place within the prison system that housed some of its most dangerous inmates. So where do they go?

SHAPIRO: That's right, Asma. The special management unit was set up to separate men who created serious problems at other prisons. They were leaders of prison gangs. They were violent. Although in our reporting, we talked to men who didn't seem to fit that description. Maybe they had untreated mental illness. The mother of one man killed at Thomson said he'd ended up there because he'd filed complaints against guards at another prison after they'd forced him into a fight with members of a white supremacist gang.

It's been seven years since Christie Thompson and I wrote our first stories on these federal special management units. And first, we reported on abuse at the unit at Lewisburg, Pa., and shortly after that, Lewisburg was shut down. We followed up to see what happened to the men who were moved from Lewisburg to Thomson. And we'll keep watching.

KHALID: NPR investigative correspondent Joseph Shapiro. Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: You're so welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENSUKE USHIO'S "LIVINGROOM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
Joseph Shapiro is a NPR News Investigations correspondent.