[Pnews] New Federal Supermax Prison Will Double Capacity for Extreme Solitary Confinement

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Jan 15 11:26:09 EST 2015

*New Federal Supermax Prison Will Double Capacity for Extreme Solitary 

January 15, 2015 by Aviva Stahl

thomsonpicAmid growing controversy around the use of solitary 
confinement in U.S. prisons and jails, and in advance of an audit of its 
own prison “segregation” practices, the federal government is quietly 
moving ahead with a plan that would significantly increase its capacity 
to house individuals in long-term isolation. The 2015 Omnibus 
Appropriations bill passed by Congress in December contained funding for 
the continued activation of Thomson prison, a currently disused facility 
in northwest Illinois.

It has been years since Thomson dominated the headlines with news of 
mainland-bound Guantanamo detainees. Yet its activation remains 
significant because of the prison’s potential to alter the landscape of 
solitary confinement on the federal level. Reliable sources indicate 
that the Bureau of Prisons plans to use the facility to add 1,500 
Special Management Unit beds and 400 more Administrative Maximum-rated 
cells. The latter increase would double the number of people held in 
conditions of extreme isolation like those at ADX Florence, a place that 
has been denounced by UN officials and human rights groups, and 
described by one former warden as a “clean version of hell.”

The Backstory: How Thomson Came Into BOP Hands

In October 2012, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) purchased Thomson 
Correctional Center (TCC) from the State of Illinois for $165 million. 
The facility was built in 2001 “as a state-of-the-art, maximum-security 
prison,” but due to budget cuts, it never became fully operational.

By all accounts, the Obama administration originally envisioned Thomson 
as a new home for the men held at Guantanamo Bay. In late 2010, however, 
Congress foiled Obama’s plan by voting to prohibit the use federal funds 
to transport detainees onto American soil. And while the President has 
been moving aggressively in recent months to transfer detainees out of 
Guantanamo, serious obstacles remain in terms of the political 
feasibility of closing the prison camp.

 From the beginning, Justice Department officials insisted that 
regardless of Gitmo’s fate, they also intended to use Thomson to 
alleviate the overcrowding crisis within the BOP’s highest-security 
institutions. Overcrowding (e.g. incarcerated population above rated 
capacity) reached 55 percent in federal high-security facilities by 
2011. For BOP officials in search of more high-security housing, the 
Thomson purchase was a steal, since the cost of building a high-security 
facility from scratch was estimated at $400 million.

Ironically, the two Illinois elected officials who championed the 
federal purchase of Thomson are both known for challenging solitary 
confinement. Then-Governor Pat Quinn closed down the state’s notorious 
supermax prison, Tamms, while Senator Dick Durbin is the first member of 
Congress to hold hearings critical of solitary.

The reasons for their support of the Thomson sale are not difficult to 
discern. According to a press release issued by Illinois Senator Dick 
Durbin at the time that Thomson was purchased, “annual operation of the 
facility is expected to generate more than $122 million in operating 
expenditures (including salaries), $19 million in labor income, and $61 
million in local business sales.” Along with infusing cash into the 
state’s coffers and offloading the cost of maintaining the facility, the 
sale and eventual activation of the prison is expected to create more 
than 1,100 jobs.

Durbin is also a staunch supporter of Cheri Bustos, who represents the 
17th Congressional District in which Thomson is located. During the 2011 
campaign cycle, The Sauk Valley News interviewed a competing Democratic 
candidate in the district, who said that Durbin had met with him 
personally and asked him to withdraw from the race. When Bustos squared 
off with her Republican contender, both took vocal stances on the best 
strategy for securing the sale of Thomson–an issue made pressing by the 
economic fallout the district experienced when the facility failed to open.

“This area has been looking at an empty prison for twelve years now,” 
Thomson Village President Vicky Trager told Solitary Watch in a phone 
interview. “The state of Illinois constructed it and then couldn’t seem 
to find the funding to activate it. So there were a lot of local 
business, not just in Thomson but in the entire surrounding area, that 
had invested in properties or constructed buildings in anticipation of 
the uptake in population and visitors to our area. And when that didn’t 
happen, they were very badly affected.”

But it is not just local businesses that have suffered. Last week, the 
Quad-City Times reported that the village is struggling to pay off a $4 
million bond–a debt taken on by Thomson to finance the water and sewer 
improvements that the prison required.

Once Thomson was purchased, the Bureau of Prisons still required a 
steady stream of funds to activate it, and Senator Durbin and 
Representative Bustos have advocated aggressively in Congress for the 
money. In FY2014, the facility received $43.7 million for equipment and 
staffing, and an additional $10 million for renovations. And the prison 
is set to receive an additional $58.7 million from the FY2015 Omnibus 
Appropriations bill passed in December.

“Both personally, and from the standpoint as Village President, I can’t 
say enough for the efforts and the support that we have received from 
both Congresswoman Bustos and Senator Durbin,” Trager told Solitary 
Watch. “Having met them both personally, I feel encouraged and confident 
that they do care about getting it activated and getting it open and 
we’re grateful for that.”

The Road to Activation

The Bureau of Prisons has projected that Thomson will be fully activated 
by 2016. For now, however, the process of activation appears to be 
proceeding slowly. In August, the BOP named a warden for the facility, 
Donald Hudson, who most recently headed up the Federal Correctional 
Institute in Schuylkill, Pennsylvania. About a month later, the prison 
held its first job fair.

Yet a host of questions remain about who will be held at the prison and 
in what conditions of confinement—questions for which the BOP has failed 
to provide clear answers.

In its FY 2014 budget request, the US Department of Justice referred to 
the facility as “ADX USP Thomson,” seemingly an indication that the 
prison would function at least in part as a second Administrative 
Maximum facility (along with ADX Florence). A little more than six 
months later, when Warden Hudson was appointed, the Bureau of Prisons 
instead called the facility “Administrative United States Penitentiary 
(AUSP) Thomson—an odd move, given that no existing federal prison 
facility holds the same designation. Thus far, federal prisoners given 
high-security designations have been housed in “United States 
Penitentiaries (USPs)”; prisoners perceived as requiring the highest 
level of security—like those with terrorism convictions—are placed in 
Florence ADX.

The BOP’s press officer did not respond to repeated requests from 
Solitary Watch for clarification of Thomson’s designation.

Of all prisons and jails across the United States, Florence ADX is 
generally considered to have the most extreme conditions of isolation, 
with most individuals receiving all meals and programming in their 
cells, and even taking their showers in-cell at timed intervals.

According to an August 2014 report on prison activation published by the 
Government Accountability Office, the “BOP plans to move some of the 
most dangerous SMU inmates housed elsewhere to Administrative USP 
Thomson.” It also details, “Administrative USP Thomson has a rated 
capacity of 2,100 beds—1,900 high-security SMU beds and 200 
minimum-security beds at the onsite camp—and according to BOP officials, 
the potential to use some of its high-security rated capacity to house 
up to 400 ADX inmates.”

The BOP sends people to an SMU, or Special Management Unit, if they are 
alleged to have participated in gang activity or have a history of 
serious disciplinary infractions; the program is supposed to consist of 
a four-level, 18-to-24 month step-down program, but many remain for 
significantly longer.

Individuals held in SMUs also live in continuous isolation, with only 
five hours per week out of their cells for exercise, and two phone calls 
and four visiting hours each month. Some SMU cells meant for one are 
currently double-bunked. As of May 2013 the SMU population in the BOP 
rested at 1,960 prisoners and 1,270 cells, meaning the activation of 
Thomson will more than double the number of SMU cells.

Solitary Watch also requested information about how SMU prisoners will 
be selected for transfer to Thomson, and whether any individuals 
currently held at ADX Florence would be moved to the facility, but 
received no reply.

The BOP’s decision to also functionally double its number of nationally 
available ADX-cells—from 400 to 800—does not seem to answer any systemic 
need. Unlike the USPs, ADX Florence has consistently been operating 
below capacity. And Administrative Maximum-level housing requires much 
greater spending and staffing per prisoner than high-security housing.

Creating an ADX-level unit may also require some significant internal 
renovations to Thomson prison. David Maurer is the Director of Homeland 
Security and Justice Issues for the GAO, and the author of several 
reports that examine Bureau of Prisons activities. He told Solitary 
Watch that when the GAO toured Thomson in March 2014 prior to the 
release of a report on prison activation, they asked the BOP about the 
different physical requirements for the layout of ADX cells as opposed 
to high-security ones. “When you go to the control unit in ADX, the 
cells are configured in a certain way. The cells at Thomson are not 
currently configured in that way.” Maurer said the BOP “said they would 
take that into consideration.”

Malcolm Young toured Thomson in 2008 when he served as the Executive 
Director of the John Howard Association of Illinois, a prison reform 
organization. He told Solitary Watch that none of the cells at the 
prison have built-in showers, and nor are any double doored—both of 
which are known to be standard features in ADX cells. Young also 
specified the cells were built to hold one individual, with the beds 
poured with cement or cement-like material, but that a second bunk could 
be added if necessary.

To the touring members of the John Howard Association Thomson seemed 
like a “far superior facility” than other maximum-security prisons 
operating in the state, Young said, adding that his team’s assessment 
was predicated on the assumption that people would be single-celled. 
“That would change everything. It should not ever be double celled.” In 
addition, few of the positive features cited by Young—which included 
dayrooms, cafeterias, and classrooms—would be of any use at all in a 
supermax prison where there are no congregate activities.

The BOP declined to provide any information about what renovations will 
be conducted at Thomson or when they anticipate the construction will be 
completed. In response to queries from Solitary Watch about why the 
agency would be adding additional ADX-level beds when Florence is 
running under capacity, the press officer stated that the BOP declined 
to comment.

Prison “Overcrowding” and the Pushback Against Solitary

Advocates and policy makers are not merely awaiting news about Thomson’s 
future—they are also anticipating the publication of an audit of the 
Bureau of Policies on segregation, expected to come out early next year. 
The audit was performed by an outside team contracted through the 
National Institute of Corrections, following the 2012 Senate Judiciary 
Subcommittee hearing on solitary confinement, chaired by Dick Durbin.

Solitary Watch asked Durbin’s office how the Senator balanced his 
concerns about solitary confinement and his commitment to opening 
Thomson. “Thomson prison will be a federal maximum security prison and 
will help alleviate massive overcrowding within the Federal prison 
system,” his press officer wrote in response. “Overcrowding which has 
created grave safety concerns for both inmates and prison officials.”

“Senator Durbin’s efforts to secure the purchase of Thomson prison, 
reform solitary confinement practices, and encourage smarter sentencing 
practices are all consistently aimed at improving the safety, rights, 
and treatment of inmates, prison guards and the broader community. He 
will continue his work to ensure that all prisoners, whether in Thomson 
or elsewhere in the Federal system, are treated humanely and that no one 
is housed in segregation unnecessarily.”

Many prison advocates contest the BOP’s assertion that the 
“overcrowding” problem is a result of lack of capacity.

Alan Mills is the Legal Director of the Uptown People’s Law Center, a 
community-based legal organization in Chicago. He told Solitary Watch 
that the real problem in the federal system is not a lack of 
high-security cell space, but locking up people for too long and over 
classifying prisoners as “maximum security.” Mills also contested that 
notion that isolation makes prisons safer, commenting that 
“psychologists have known since the 1920’s that packing lots of people 
into small spaces and giving them nothing to do inevitably leads to 

A 2013 GAO report on segregation in the federal prison system documents 
the dramatic rise in the use of isolation and takes issue with the BOP’s 
claim that solitary is both necessary and effective. The report summary 
states, “…without an assessment of the impact of segregation on 
institutional safety or study of the long-term impact of segregated 
housing on inmates, BOP cannot determine the extent to which segregated 
housing achieves its stated purpose to protect inmates, staff and the 
general public.”

But little came of the report, and with Thomson’s activation seemingly 
inching towards reality, advocates are left wondering when things will 
change. “If they build it, they will fill it,” said Reverend Laura 
Markle Downtown, the Director of the US Prisons Policy & Program at the 
National Religious Campaign Against Torture, in an email to Solitary Watch.

Downton calls the activation of Thomson “an immoral, unjustifiable move 
on the part the BOP, antithetical to rehabilitation and in violation of 
international human rights. The overwhelming consensus amongst people of 
faith and conscience nationwide, from a broad array of political 
persuasions and religious traditions, is that the isolated confinement 
found in ADX-level and SMU-housing is torture.”

Amidst the debates on rural economies, prison overcrowding, and 
government audits, the voices of survivors of solitary confinement can 
sometimes be hard to hear. Ray Luc Levasseur is a former political 
prisoner who spent over fifteen years in solitary confinement.

“I was one of the first prisoners sent to ADX, the federal supermax, a 
prison designed from the ground up for sensory deprivation,” he told 
Solitary Watch. “The projected activation of another supermax in 
Thomson, Illinois makes me feel like a survivor of abuse that’s watching 
the abuser receive rewards and impunity. And I fear for those who’ll be 
confined their cages, and those in the communities to which they’ll 
someday return.”

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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