Update: Last Week’s Story About USP Tucson and the BOP

Image courtesy of Federal Bureau of Prisons via Wikimedia Commons.

Update: Last Week’s Story About USP Tucson and the BOP

Last week, Interrogating Justice published my exclusive story about what really happened during — and after — the gun incident at USP Tucson’s minimum-security satellite camp on Nov. 13, 2022. The BOP’s version of events to the Associated Press immediately after the incident was unremarkable.

“A federal prison inmate who was able to obtain a firearm at a prison camp in Arizona pulled out the gun in a visitation area and attempted to shoot a visitor in the head,” the AP’s article on Nov. 14, 2022, the day after the incident, began. “But the weapon did not fire and no one was injured.” Ultimately, the AP wrote, “Officials said the inmate was restrained and the firearm was seized.”

What this version of events left out, however, was that “the inmate was restrained and the firearm was seized” by another detainee at the camp, not BOP staff. Rather than try to restrain the attempted shooter or seize his firearm, BOP staff literally ran out of the room as the man beat his wife with a handgun and his fists.

More than 100 days have gone by since the incident, and the BOP hasn’t reached out to the victim or her two children who watched as all of this unfolded. Instead, the BOP moved all of the campers to a nearby maximum-security facility, where they spent the next three months waiting for answers that would never come.

Since my story came out late last week, one thing has become clear: The end of the BOP’s runaround for these prisoners is not here yet.

We published our piece at noon on Thursday. By Thursday night, most of the campers were back at the camp.

Interrogating Justice published my article about what happened in the visiting room at the USP satellite camp at 12:00 p.m. EST on Thursday, Feb. 23. By 7:00 p.m. EST that evening, multiple people confirmed to me that dozens of the campers moved from the maximum-security facility back to the camp.

The BOP confirmed the campers’ move back to the camp by email the following morning:

Screenshot courtesy of Peter J. Tomasek.

“BREAKING NEWS,” one loved one immediately messaged me. “I just received news from one of the families- she received an email that the campers … moved back to the camp!!!! Coincidence???? I think not!!”

I’d be lying if I said her excitement (and, selfishly, her willingness to attribute the good news to my story) didn’t make me smile. In reality, it’s unlikely that my story had anything to do with the campers’ move. Instead, according to two people I spoke with, BOP staff strategically timed the move because of an upcoming “inspection.”

Either way, for the men who made it back to the camp, the move was a welcome one. But the excitement didn’t last long. One loved one told me that BOP staff threw away pretty much all of her husband’s belongings. Another said the same. “All his things are gone,” she wrote. “No idea if all thrown out in garbage or if they are packed up somewhere.”

Even more frustrating was the immediate news that they wouldn’t be back at the camp for very long.

After the inspection, sources say, the camp’s warden and administrator plan to “ship” the men all over the country.

By first thing Friday morning, I was receiving messages from several people with loved ones at the USP Tucson camp about how the BOP was planning to move them yet again. “I’ve also heard that for whatever reason, there is concern that the warden is still trying to ship them all out,” one person tweeted.

“Confirming I received the same information from my loved one via email,” another replied. “He is back at the camp and in his message to me also echoed the concern regarding the warden shipping them out….”

Privately, the situation sounded even worse. “Two more large groups have been sent to the SHU,” someone texted me. “Rumors are running around that campers are still going to be ‘shipped out’ to other locations.” And by Saturday morning, nothing had changed. “[R]umor still is that the original campers may still be separated/shipped out to various BOP facilities,” one loved one told me.

As I explained to one of the loved ones I spoke with, the idea to separate and “ship” the men all over the country doesn’t necessarily surprise me. Frankly, while unfair, that might have been a reasonable response to the incident on Nov. 13, 2022, while law enforcement investigated. Now though? The families speculate that the warden and the camp administrator are only doing it to punish or silence the campers and their loved ones — maybe both.

The return to the camp, even if only temporary and done for the wrong reasons, was a reality check for the families.

Over the weekend, I heard from several more people who had loved ones in USP Tucson’s minimum-security satellite camp on Nov. 13, 2022. Some of them knew about the attempted shooting and their loved one’s relocation to the maximum-security facility. Others didn’t.

For those who didn’t, “ignorance is bliss” is a real-life mantra. Almost everyone I talked to acknowledged that their loved one inside didn’t tell them everything. “I know he didn’t tell me how bad everything was for him because he knew we’d worry, like any human should,” one woman told me.

But, at least for her, the “ignorance is bliss” mantra sort of turned into a genuine belief that no news is good news. “In my head, I thought well I’m his emergency contact,” she told me. “And I haven’t been notified about anything.”

Yet this woman was also keenly aware of her loved one’s treatment over the past three-plus months. After not hearing from her loved one for an entire month, she said, “[h]e was only allowed to talk for five minutes and he said he had been locked up all day.” She told me that her loved one “said he hadn’t got a haircut in so long and he was not eating” because BOP staff wouldn’t comply with his dietary restrictions.

I understand if you’re skeptical when it comes to these dietary restrictions. To be honest, I was too. But I’m not going to disclose the camper’s medical condition that requires a restricted diet out of respect for his privacy. Him and his family are concerned that this would be enough information to help the BOP identify — and, they fear, retaliate against — him.

Image courtesy of  Andrew Schultz via Unsplash.

Meanwhile, some campers remain in the SHU — a place they’d never be if the BOP didn’t let the man access a gun.

Yet the loved ones who have had a chance to talk to the campers who returned to the camp last week still consider themselves to be the lucky ones. This is because, for others, there was no return or the return only lasted a few hours.

Rather than returning to or staying at the camp they called home for months without issue, this group of men find themselves in the SHU at the maximum-security facility, a location they seemed poised to stay in until Congress or BOP Director Collette Peters directly intervenes.

To be fair, there may well be a legitimate-on-paper reason why these individuals are in the SHU. It’s possible that they technically violated a rule (although it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that others have violated the same rule without facing any consequences). Nevertheless, because their loved ones haven’t been able to talk to them, it’s impossible to know.

Of course, the BOP can’t keep these men in the SHU indefinitely. But rules regarding placement in solitary confinement have no meaning if no one cares whether BOP staff follow them. And, frankly, that’s precisely the kind of environment that lends itself to a minimum-security camper holding a pistol to his wife’s head in a visiting room.

After all, none of these men would be in the SHU if the camper who tried to shoot his wife hadn’t been able to access a handgun under the BOP’s watch. Yet three months have gone by, and there’s no indication that the BOP is any better at keeping a gun out of USP Tucson than it was back in November. If anything, the shooter made out better than most of his peers, moving to a medium-security facility rather than a maximum-security facility or the SHU.

For most of us, this whole situation doesn’t make any sense. For the BOP, however, it’s business as usual.

In this piece for Forbes about the incident, Walter Pavlo said that the BOP punished these men for “being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” He might be on to something. In fact, for the BOP, it seems like being in the wrong place at the wrong time might be the worst thing you can do.

The reality is that low-level BOP supervisors (like wardens and camp administrators) operate with almost unlimited power. They can, as this situation illustrates, literally “ship” men around as they please, and they almost always do so without pushback.

As we indicated in our original story, however, the initial plan to separate these men in camps all over the country ran into an obstacle at either the regional or national level. That pushback didn’t stop the warden or camp administrator from moving the men to maximum-security cells or the SHU. And, at least for the time being, there’s at least a possibility that it won’t stop them from “shipping” the men out either.

Someone can though: Congress.

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