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A warden tried to fix an abusive federal prison. He faced death threats

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Special Management Unit at the U.S. Penitentiary at Thomson, Ill., was one of the most violent prisons in the country. NPR and The Marshall Project first exposed the abuse of prisoners there last year. And in February, officials at the U.S. Bureau of Prisons concluded that the unit couldn't be fixed and shut it down. Now prison officials are telling our reporters that things were as bad as we reported and worse. When they tried to make change, they even faced a death plot from some of their own staff. Here's NPR investigative correspondent Joseph Shapiro.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Egregious inmate abuse, the worst he'd ever seen in his 31 years in corrections. That's how Warden Thomas Bergami described what he found at Thomson. He was sent there in March of 2022 to fix things, but he says often corrections officers resisted his directives to quit abusing prisoners. He ordered them to stop putting prisoners in handcuffs and restraints for hours and days, so tight and for so long that men were left with permanent scars, what they called their Thomson tattoos. Bergami told us of white guards using racial slurs and writing up false charges against Black prisoners. Then when he tried to hold staff accountable, he says the staff union went to war, falsifying and hyping problems at the prison and complaining to the local media.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Your top story at 10 - calls for help are growing inside USP Thomson.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Thomas Bergami has only been the warden at USP Thomson for about four months, but the staff union is calling for his immediate removal.

J SHAPIRO: Bergami says his superiors at the Federal Bureau of Prisons were afraid of bad publicity, and that they failed to back him up. Bergami retired recently. He spoke freely, but he didn't want his voice on tape. NPR and The Marshall Project found backing for his version of events in 200 pages of official documents, in interviews with several current and former Thomson staff, even union members and senior officials, like Associate Warden Denny Whitmore.

DENNY WHITMORE: It says on top, this is an emergency issue. Please help. And it's dated December 21 and 22.

J SHAPIRO: Whitmore reads a handwritten letter. It's an urgent warning to the warden, signed last December by 14 prisoners. They reported that corrections officers were recruiting prisoners, promising favors to ones who would physically attack the warden.

WHITMORE: Each individual inmate who have signed this document all testify that they have had encounters with many officers who have offered extra materials - food, trays - and privileges to verbally and physically assault Warden Bergami.

J SHAPIRO: The Bureau of Prisons investigated, but the investigator's report was short and dismissive. The investigator says he interviewed prisoners who signed the letter, that their stories were consistent. But because they wouldn't or couldn't tell the investigator the time and day the guards talked to them, the investigator says he can't check out their story. As a result, quote, "this investigator could not confirm nor refute the allegations of the inmates." Damon Jackson has no doubt that the threat was real.

DAMON JACKSON: Man, them guards, man, they vicious.

J SHAPIRO: Jackson was one of the prisoners who, at personal risk, signed the warning letter.

JACKSON: The officers, they openly talked trash about the warden. They wanted him out the way. They openly talk about it, like, it ain't no secret. They wanted to continue doing what they were doing, the warden wasn't going for it, so they was trying to get him out the way so they could continue beating inmates and running the prison how they wanted to run it.

WHITMORE: And I felt terrible for Warden Bergami.

J SHAPIRO: Denny Whitmore, the associate warden.

WHITMORE: His head's probably spinning like, wait a minute, there's a threat against my life, and there's staff conspiring to have inmates seriously assault me or try to kill me? And then to find out the staff are put back on their posts within, like, a three- to five-day period, you know, it just - it screams of unsafe.

J SHAPIRO: Whitmore and Bergami were two experienced wardens sent to Thomson by the Bureau of Prisons to correct things. Right away, they ran into resistance.

WHITMORE: Black Shirt Mafia.

J SHAPIRO: Black Shirt Mafia. That's what he says a large group of corrections officers and other staffers called themselves, the Black Shirt Mafia. Instead of wearing their uniforms, they came to work in black T-shirts, and they didn't wear their name tags. It was a sign to the prisoners and to the wardens that the guards could do what they wanted. Some wore T-shirts with white skulls, the logo of the Punisher, the Marvel Comics vigilante. Marvel retired the logo after it was appropriated by far-right groups and worn by some of the January 6 rioters.

Bergami and Whitmore quickly issued a directive - staff needed to wear their official prison uniforms. The wardens say the union complained to their boss at the Bureau of Prisons, the regional director, who then reversed the order and said it was OK for staff to wear black T-shirts and hoodies, but only with the union's logo.

WHITMORE: It totally diminished our authority. It totally undermined whatever we were trying to do there.

J SHAPIRO: It was one of many times they say officials at the agency sided with the union and the guards.

WHITMORE: There was one that pulled an inmate out of his cell and then swung him around and smashed the inmate's face off the wall.

J SHAPIRO: The BOP told us it responds to abuse allegations with, quote, "rigorous investigations and decisive action." But the wardens say BOP officials ordered guards who faced repeated accusations to be reinstated. Union leaders deny the accusations of the wardens. They say it was the wardens who created problems and failed to protect the safety of prison staff. Brian Mueller is an officer for the national Council of Prison Locals

BRIAN MUELLER: Union and management, it's a partnership, it's a give and take. This is a situation at Thompson where obviously it's well-documented that management and labor did not get along.

J SHAPIRO: This summer, Bergami retired from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Whitmore, too. Both believe their path to promotion was now blocked. These were wardens who just last year were considered so skilled that they were sent to correct a bad prison. After the Bureau of Prisons shut down the Special Management Unit in February and moved the inmates to other prisons, it expanded a low-security prison at Thomson.

TOPEKA SAM: What happened was they closed it and they reopened in the same building, and they have the same offices there.

J SHAPIRO: Topeka Sam is a prison advocate whose fiance is a prisoner at that low-security facility. We talked to multiple family members of men who are there now. They say the brutal treatment of prisoners continues.

SAM: So they may have moved the other population - they have a new population there - but it's the same officers there, so you didn't change anything.

J SHAPIRO: In September, the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Colette Peters, was called to Capitol Hill for an oversight hearing. The first thing she got asked...

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DICK DURBIN: So let me talk about Thomson for a minute.

J SHAPIRO: ...Was about her decision to shut down the unit at Thomson.

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COLETTE PETERS: Thank you, Senator. I don't know how an institution gets to that low, low point. As you said, the warden reported he hadn't seen anything like that in his career. I, too, hadn't seen anything like that in my 30-plus year career in corrections and law enforcement.

J SHAPIRO: Far from Capitol Hill, former Warden Thomas Bergami watched. He told us he felt validated by what she said. Director Peters took over last year as a reformer. Bergami felt allied with her, but that people under her resisted change. At that hearing, Peters cautioned it would take time to turn the culture at the Illinois prison. There's been retraining of staff, and the director said guards who were found responsible for abusing prisoners would be held accountable. But so far, no staffer has been fired for the damaging abuse at Thomson.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMON, KANYE WEST AND JOHN LEGEND SONG, "THEY SAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joseph Shapiro is a NPR News Investigations correspondent.
Tirzah Christopher
Tirzah Christopher is the 2023 Roy W. Howard fellow at NPR. An international investigative reporter, she graduated in December 2022 with a master's degree in investigative journalism from Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.