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High-profile attacks on Derek Chauvin and Larry Nassar put spotlight on violence in federal prisons

Published: December 8, 2023, 1:55pm

Derek Chauvin was stabbed nearly two dozen times in the law library at a federal prison in Arizona. Larry Nassar was knifed repeatedly in his cell at a federal penitentiary in Florida.

The assaults of two notorious, high-profile federal prisoners by fellow inmates in recent months have renewed concerns about whether the chronically understaffed, crisis-plagued federal Bureau of Prisons is capable of keeping people in its custody safe.

In the shadow of gangster James “Whitey” Bulger’s 2018 beating death at a West Virginia federal penitentiary and financier Jeffrey Epstein’s 2019 suicide at a Manhattan federal jail while awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges, the Bureau of Prisons is again under scrutiny for failing to protect high-profile prisoners from harm.

Chauvin, 47, the former Minneapolis police officer convicted of murdering George Floyd in 2020, was hospitalized for a week after he was assaulted Nov. 24 at a medium-security federal prison in Tucson, Arizona — the same complex where an inmate tried to shoot a visitor last year with a contraband gun.

Chauvin’s suspected attacker, an ex-gang leader, told correctional officers he would have killed him if they hadn’t responded when they did, prosecutors said. He was charged last week with attempted murder and has been moved out of Chauvin’s prison to a federal penitentiary next door.

Chauvin’s family is “very concerned about the facility’s capacity to protect Derek from further harm,” his lawyer, Gregory Erickson, said. “They remain unassured that any changes have been made to the faulty procedures that allowed Derek’s attack to occur in the first place.”

Nassar, 60, the ex-U.S. women’s gymnastics team doctor who sexually abused athletes, was treated for a collapsed lung after he was stabbed multiple times in the neck, chest and back on July 9 at a federal penitentiary in Coleman, Florida. His attacker was stopped by other inmates before officers arrived.

The attacks on Chauvin and Nassar, among dozens of other assaults and deaths involving lesser-known federal inmates, are symptoms of larger systemic problems within the Justice Department’s largest agency that put all 158,000 federal prisoners at risk. They include severe staffing shortages, staff-on-inmate abuse, broken surveillance cameras and crumbling infrastructure.

The violence has challenged a perception — repeated by some lawyers and criminal justice experts quoted in the news media when Chauvin was sentenced last year — that federal prisons are far safer than state prisons or local jails. The inmates suspected of attacking Chauvin and Nassar both have violent histories.

After Chauvin’s attack, his mother complained in a since-deleted Facebook post that the Bureau of Prisons was keeping her in the dark on details of the assault and his medical condition — echoing complaints early in the COVID-19 pandemic when families weren’t informed about inmates who were dying from the virus until it was too late. The agency said it gave updates on Chauvin’s health to everyone he asked to be notified.

“Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd was a tragic loss of life and a horrifying reminder of the inequality that pervades our justice system,” said Daniel Landsman, the deputy director of policy at the criminal justice advocacy group FAMM, or Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

“However, no one’s sentence, regardless of their offense, includes being subjected to violence while they’re in prison. The attack on Chauvin is the latest in a long list of incidents that highlight the urgent need for comprehensive independent oversight of our federal Bureau of Prisons,” Landsman said.

An ongoing Associated Press investigation has uncovered deep, previously unreported problems within the Bureau of Prisons, including rampant sexual abuse and other staff criminal conduct, dozens of escapes, chronic violence, deaths and severe staffing shortages that have hampered responses to emergencies, including inmate assaults and suicides.

The Bureau of Prisons, with more than 30,000 employees, 122 prison facilities and an annual budget of about $8 billion, has drawn increased oversight from Congress and scrutiny from government watchdogs in the wake of Bulger and Epstein’s deaths.

A law passed last year requires the Bureau of Prisons to overhaul outdated security systems and replace broken cameras — one of several critical issues that came to light in the wake of Epstein’s suicide. In some instances, however, the agency has been slow to comply, blaming technological challenges.

Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, meanwhile, has issued a pair of scathing reports citing management failures, flawed policies and widespread incompetence as factors in Bulger’s killing and blaming a “combination of negligence, misconduct and outright job performance failures” for Epstein’s suicide.

“The numerous and serious transgressions that occurred in this matter came to light largely because they involved a high-profile inmate,” Horowitz wrote in a June report on Epstein’s suicide. “The fact that serious deficiencies occurred in connection with high-profile inmates like Epstein and Bulger is especially concerning given that the BOP would presumably take particular care in handling the custody and care of such inmates.”

High-profile inmates are labeled in the federal prison system as “Broad Publicity” because of their widespread publicity as a result of their criminal activity or notoriety as public figures. Incidents involving them typically attract far greater media attention and public curiosity than other prison mayhem, but they’re often a sign of larger dysfunction.

In the wake of Epstein’s suicide, officials at a federal jail in Brooklyn took the unusual step of making his longtime confidant Ghislaine Maxwell wear paper clothing and sleep without bedsheets. They woke her up with flashlights every 15 minutes to make sure she was still alive.

But that’s far from the norm. In June, another high-profile inmate, “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski, was found unresponsive in his cell by correctional officers making rounds after midnight at a federal prison medical center in North Carolina. Kaczynski previously attempted suicide while awaiting trial in 1998 but rejected a psychiatrist’s diagnosis that he was mentally ill.

Responding to Horowitz, Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters wrote that lessons learned from the investigation would be “applied to the broader BOP correctional landscape.” But asked by the AP last week, the agency declined to detail what changes, if any, have been made, saying it does not “discuss specific security practices.”

Peters also promised a sweeping security review after the Tucson gun breach in November 2022, telling the AP that the Bureau of Prisons would assess safety measures and identify lapses at prison camps, potentially providing lessons for tightening protocols throughout the agency. Asked for an update, the agency said it “does not comment on matters related to investigations.”

A spokesperson, Benjamin O’Cone, said the Bureau of Prisons “takes seriously our duty to protect the individuals entrusted in our custody, as well as maintain the safety of correctional employees and the community.”

“As part of that obligation, we review safety protocols and implement corrective actions when identified as necessary in those reviews to ensure that our mission of operating safe, secure, and humane facilities is fulfilled,” O’Cone said.

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Chauvin began his incarceration in solitary confinement at a maximum-security Minnesota state prison, sequestered from other inmates and kept in his cell 23 hours a day “largely for his own protection,” his former lawyer wrote in court papers.

He transferred to FCI Tucson in August 2022 after making a deal to simultaneously serve all of his punishment for Floyd’s murder in federal prison — a 21-year federal sentence for violating Floyd’s civil rights, which was later reduced by seven months, and a 22½-year state sentence for second-degree murder.

Chauvin’s sentencing judge, empathizing with him over his isolation in state prison, expressed optimism that he would fare better with fewer restrictions as a federal inmate.

“While for security reasons and for your protection these conditions may have been necessary, I still feel for you and the difficult days you’ve gone through,” U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson told Chauvin at his July 2022 federal sentencing. “Hopefully, the Bureau of Prisons will be able to improve these conditions substantially.”

Rather than solitary confinement or protective custody, the Bureau of Prisons placed Chauvin in the “dropout yard” — a housing unit for former police officers, ex-gang members, sexual abusers and other high-risk prisoners.

Though generally thought to be safer for such inmates than the general prison population, those units still see occasional flashes of violence, like Nassar’s stabbing in a “dropout yard” unit at the U.S. Penitentiary in Coleman, Florida.

Nassar, who was also convicted of possessing images of child sexual abuse, was attacked in his cell after he purportedly made a lewd comment while watching a Wimbledon women’s tennis match on TV. An inmate, identified in prison records as Shane McMillan, stabbed him repeatedly before four other inmates pulled him away.

McMillan was previously convicted of assaulting a federal prison officer in Louisiana in 2006 and attempting to stab another inmate to death at the federal Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, in 2011. He remains locked up in Florida and has yet to be charged with attacking Nassar, who was moved to a federal penitentiary in Pennsylvania. Court records did not list a lawyer for him.

In May 2018, Nassar’s lawyers said, he was attacked within hours of being placed in general population at the Arizona federal penitentiary next to Chauvin’s prison. Nassar’s lawyers, who have not shared details of that assault, blamed it on the notoriety of his case and his seven-day televised sentencing.

In contrast, Chauvin’s move to federal prison appeared to start off well. In a brief glimpse of his life as a federal inmate, he appeared by video from FCI Tucson in March — wearing a prison-issued short-sleeve blue button-down shirt — to plead guilty in a Minnesota tax evasion case.

Last month, Chauvin mailed court papers from the prison — complete with his handwritten name and inmate number on the envelope — in a longshot bid to overturn his federal guilty plea. In them, he complained that his ex-lawyer had ignored supposed new evidence of his innocence, but said nothing about how he was being treated behind bars.

Prior to Chauvin’s stabbing, there were no public reports of violence toward him — but he was still at risk.

John Turscak, the former Mexican Mafia gang leader and one-time FBI informant accused of attacking Chauvin, told investigators he thought about stabbing him for a month before seeing an opportunity to strike in the law library around 12:30 p.m. local time on Nov. 24, federal prosecutors said.

Turscak stabbed Chauvin 22 times with an improvised knife, only stopping when correctional officers reached him and used pepper spray to subdue him, prosecutors said. FCI Tucson has struggled with low staffing in the past, but the Bureau of Prisons said nearly every correctional officer position is now filled and staffing wasn’t an issue the day Chauvin was attacked.

Two employees were working voluntary overtime, but none were on mandatory overtime, nor was the prison using augmentation — a practice in which nurses, teachers, cooks and other staff are pulled from other duties to guard inmates, the agency said.

Chauvin’s lawyer said he confirmed to his family that allegations in Turscak’s charging document were accurate, adding that the assailant ambushed him from behind.

Turscak told the FBI that he attacked Chauvin because he is a high-profile inmate for killing Floyd, prosecutors said. Turscak said he chose Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, as a symbolic connection to the Black Lives Matter movement and the Mexican Mafia’s “Black Hand” symbol, prosecutors said.

Turscak, 52, led a faction of the Mexican Mafia in the Los Angeles area in the late 1990s and was due to be released from federal prison in 2026 after serving more than 30 years for racketeering and conspiring to kill a gang rival. Court records did not list a lawyer for him.

Now, after Turscak’s arrest and Chauvin’s return to FCI Tucson, Erickson said he and his client’s family have more questions — and concerns. They are continuing to push for answers on additional measures, if any, that are being taken to protect Chauvin, and will pursue “any avenues available under the law to ensure his continued safety,” Erickson said.

“It remains a mystery how the perpetrator was able to obtain and possess dangerous materials” to fashion a makeshift knife, “and how a guard was unable to reach and apprehend the perpetrator until Derek had been stabbed 22 times,” Erickson said.

“Why was Derek allowed into the law library without a guard in close enough proximity to stop a possible attack? the lawyer said. “His family continues to wonder.”

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