Employees working at United States Penitentiary Thomson, a high-security federal prison in Illinois near the Iowa border, are calling on the Bureau of Prisons to step in after alleging sexual misconduct by prisoners against staff.

Leaders of the American Federal American Federation of Government Employees, a union representing federal correctional officers and staff across the country, said they logged more than 300 incidents last year of those incarcerated exposing themselves or engaging in sexual acts in front of staff who do rounds, deliver meals and work on the range.

When asked to confirm those reports, a spokesperson for the agency said the total number of incident reports with guilty findings of engaging in sexual acts in 2022 was 367. This count, the spokesperson said, is not broken down by sexual acts toward staff alone.

“The Bureau of Prisons and United States Penitentiary Thomson shares the concerns about the frequency of instances where incarcerated individuals are exposing themselves to employees and engaging in sexual self-gratification,” said the spokesperson via emailed statement to Federal Times. “This sort of behavior is reprehensible and can have a damaging impact on law enforcement officers who already work in a challenging environment.”

Local union leadership has said incidents have become frequent enough to cause at least some of the more than 125 staff who left in 2022 to quit their jobs, exacerbating low staffing levels.

In a Dec. 21 letter to Colette Peters, the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst highlighted that the facility is authorized to employ 603 staff, including 364 custody staff. As of Aug. 31, the prison has 492 hired employees, including 286 custody staff. The prison houses more than 700 people.

“Not only does this sexual misconduct create a hostile workplace, it is also exacerbating BOP’s staffing crisis,” her letter said. “Some have reported their departures are a direct result of the sexual misconduct endured by the staff, particularly female staff, at the facility.”

Ernst said that over the last few months, her staff had been communicating with the BOP Office of Legislative Affairs, but policy changes have been inconsistent or only temporary — failing to put a stop to incidents that totaled 30 from Dec. 1 to Dec. 14 at USP Thomson, according to her letter.

“Our staff are sitting ducks,” said AFGE local President Jon Zumkehr in an interview. “The morale is rock bottom here. The staff feel that this [agency] administration does not have their back.”

At one point, corrections staff said prisoners who engaged in sexual misconduct were placed in one specific range and consolidated toward the back to obstruct their view of incoming staff, but Ernst’s staff received reports that this was no longer the case.

Window coverings were also used to mitigate exposure, but again Ernst’s staff received word that the coverings were either not being used or only used part of the time.

“We work in a very dangerous, threatening sometimes, job set, but the agency has an obligation to reduce those inherent risks as much as possible,” said Brian Mueller, AFGE’s North Central regional vice president, in an interview.

Removing those safeguards have allowed incidents to spike again, he said.

“We’re not here to punish the inmates,” Zumkehr said. “These tools are not punishment at all. These tools are to protect the staff.”

When contacted by Federal Times, USP Thomson said that due to its “complex mission,” incidents have been higher, though “additional measures have been implemented,” including “alternative security enhancements to identified cell doors of individuals who engage in sexual acts” and continuing to “educate employees concerning the handling and reporting of sexual acts.”

Thomson said it is establishing a plan to “balance the need” for extra security measures and reducing employee exposure.

Federal Times asked what additional protections are currently in place and whether they included door tags, window flaps or consolidating prisoners to the back of one range. Neither USP Thomson nor BOP elaborated on specific security practices, citing “safety and security reasons.”

BOP had a change in leadership in August when Peters was sworn in to lead the Justice Department’s largest agency, which includes more than 30,000 employees, 158,000 inmates and an annual budget of about $8 billion, according to the Associated Press.

Peters has before addressed the staffing crisis plaguing her agency, among other reforms she hopes to implement.

“I have said in this room I need to hear the good, the bad and the ugly,” Peters said to AP. “We cannot have any surprises. We have to know what is happening inside our agency so we can help.”

A spokesperson for the agency told Federal Times that Peters visited USP Thomson on Nov. 9.

Peters did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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