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The newest federal prison has become one of the deadliest

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

We turn now to NPR reporting on one of the most violent and deadly federal prisons in the country. NPR's Joseph Shapiro and Christie Thompson with the Marshall Project investigated a string of killings at the penitentiary in Thomson, Ill. Here's Joseph with our report.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Sue Phillips thinks prison guards had to know what was going to happen when they put her son, Matthew, into a recreation cage with two members of a white supremacist prison gang. Matt was Jewish.

SUE PHILLIPS: He got a Star of David tattooed on his chest.

SHAPIRO: His mother says he wasn't particularly observant. But being Jewish was part of his identity, like that tattoo.

PHILLIPS: Sort of right in the middle of his upper chest, sort of on, like, the breastbone area, and it was just a large Star of David. You could not miss it.

SHAPIRO: And you couldn't miss that the two men let into the rec cage that morning were white supremacists. Their tattoos showed they were members of a prison gang called the Valhalla Bound Skinheads.

PHILLIPS: They had white supremacy markings on their shoes.

SHAPIRO: This is all from the federal indictment of the two men.

PHILLIPS: They also had cells that contained Nazi memorabilia - mugs with swastikas on them, articles of literature promoting white supremacy, drawings of Hitler.

SHAPIRO: It was the morning of March 2, 2020, in the rec cage at the newest federal prison at Thomson, Ill. Matt Phillips was in college when he got addicted. He went to prison for selling heroin. Brandon Simonson and Kristopher Martin were known in prison as Whitey and No Luck. And in that rec cage - which is just that, a fenced cage like a large dog kennel - those men allegedly attacked Phillips, kicking and stomping his head.

PHILLIPS: There was a reference in the indictment that said they continued to kick him in the head repeatedly, even when he became defenseless and even when the guard shouted stop. What, if anything, did the guards do to stop this, besides shouting stop?

SHAPIRO: The Federal Bureau of Prisons said it can't talk about a case under litigation. NPR, working with the Marshall Project, investigated conditions at Thomson. We found it is one of the most dangerous and violent federal prisons in America. Since 2020, seven prisoners have died violently at Thomson. Matt Phillips - he was 31 - was the first to die, then Edsel Badoni and Shay Paniry, both stabbed. Boyd Weekley, Patrick Bacon - hangings. In December, Bobby Everson - another homicide.

ANGELA EVERSON: I just screamed. I mean, I couldn't believe it. I said no.

SHAPIRO: That's Angela Everson on how she reacted when she heard her nephew was killed at Thomson.

EVERSON: I had just got a letter from him. And he said, Auntie, don't go nowhere now 'cause I'm coming out. Don't go nowhere. But he wound up leaving me.

SHAPIRO: Then in March, James Everett - found unresponsive in his cell. His mother, LaVonda Clark, says her son, with his mental health problems, never should have been in Thomson.

LAVONDA CLARK: He was talking about the guards, how mean they were. It's not a good place.

SHAPIRO: The Federal Bureau of Prisons moved its special management unit to Thomson in 2019. That's a disciplinary unit that is supposed to be reserved for dangerous prisoners, ones who are gang leaders or cause violence. There was an earlier special management unit at Lewisburg, Penn. A 2016 investigation by NPR and the Marshall Project showed high rates of violence there. Then the Bureau of Prisons shut it down.

MARK DONATELLI: Lewisburg was not only a violence factory. It was a homicide factory.

SHAPIRO: That's Mark Donatelli. He's part of the Federal Death Penalty Resource Council, lawyers who represent defendants in federal death penalty cases. Donatelli says they noticed something about men who went through the special management unit, known as the SMU.

DONATELLI: We know of at least seven prisoners who came through the SMU program at Lewisburg, and within a short period of time after they're released, they were involved in homicides - most of them in prisons, one on the street. But these were prisoners who didn't have murders in their records but did shortly after the time they were released from the SMU.

SHAPIRO: Donatelli says conditions that caused violence at Lewisburg are the same or worse at Thomson. Men placed in restraints - sometimes painful four-point restraints for hours or days, something Donatelli says that's rare at other federal prisons - prisoners forced into tiny cells with men they don't get along with and locked down for 23 hours a day, men with mental health problems who don't get medications or care, a severe and stubborn staff shortage of corrections officers - these are all problems that NPR and the Marshall Project found in our investigation.

DONATELLI: This is likely another violence or homicide factory that the Bureau of Prisons is running.

SHAPIRO: Sue Phillips and her ex-husband, Matt's father, flew from Texas and found their son in the intensive care unit. Half of his skull had been removed to relieve pressure on his swollen brain. Matt was sedated, intubated, unable to breathe on his own, unable to talk. And he was...

PHILLIPS: ...Handcuffed to the bed, both arms handcuffed to the bed rails.

SHAPIRO: Her son was taken first to a small rural hospital. Doctors there said he needed to go to a trauma center. Hospital records show that prison officials refused an airlift by helicopter and sent him by ambulance instead for 90 miles. When Sue Phillips arrived, a prison official took control and warned her, don't talk to the doctors. She got just one or two 10-minute visits a day with her dying son. Two corrections officers sat outside the room.

PHILLIPS: What I clearly remember, though, was them sort of laughing and talking and sort of, you know, just fooling around with each other. And even at the end of his life, Matt was treated with such a lack of dignity.

SHAPIRO: NPR got access to a U.S. Department of Justice document that says two of the guards mocked the dying man. They told hospital staff they should just poke Matt Phillips in his exposed brain and get it over with. Someone at one of the hospitals reported the guards. The Federal Bureau of Prisons investigated. The guards denied it. We asked the Bureau of Prisons, did they punish those corrections officers? Why didn't Phillips get an air evacuation? Why was he handcuffed to the bed? The BOP said it can't talk about a case where there's pending litigation. The Phillips family is suing to try to get some answers about how their son died.

PHILLIPS: We are so outraged what happened to our son and now to learn how many times it's happened over and over again at really this house of horrors - there needs to be answers. There needs to be accountability, and it needs to stop.

SHAPIRO: The two men charged with killing Matthew Phillips pleaded not guilty. They'll go to trial maybe later this year.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joseph Shapiro is a NPR News Investigations correspondent.