In early March 2020, an ambulance delivered Matthew Phillips, a federal inmate in western Illinois, to a hospital in Iowa, where he clung to life battered beyond recognition. A prison chaplain had summoned his parents in Texas to his bedside.
“Are you sure this is my son?” Jeff Phillips said he asked the prison guards inside the room. But as he peered closer, he glimpsed the Star of David tattoo inked over his son’s heart.
Jeff Phillips said he would later learn from Matthew Phillips’ medical records that he had been stomped repeatedly in the face before blacking out, according to prison staff. He was beaten so viciously that doctors had to perform a craniectomy on the 31-year-old and remove a potato-shaped chunk of his skull to control the bleeding.
He died three days later, the result of blunt force trauma.
The tumultuous events set off a confounding search for answers that continues to this day for Matthew Phillips’ parents, who were told by authorities that two white supremacist inmates allegedly attacked him because he was Jewish.
Killings in prison are relatively rare: From 2001 to 2019, fewer than 3 percent of all deaths in federal prison were the result of homicide, according to Justice Department data. But at U.S. Penitentiary Thomson, where Matthew Phillips was serving his sentence, his death was the first of seven reported over the last two years, with at least three others involving inmates killed by prisoners and one resulting from a suicide, according to local news reports that cite the Federal Bureau of Prisons and an inmate’s family.
Frustrated by a lack of information, Matthew Phillips’ parents filed a federal lawsuit in February accusing the U.S. government of wrongful death and negligence.
Thomson has faced other allegations in federal court made by inmates, including abusive behavior by guards and inhumane conditions, although one lawsuit was dismissed in February on procedural grounds. The prison has also been plagued by chronic understaffing, and these issues have prompted a review by a team of civil rights lawyers calling for an outside probe.
“When you have that many people dying in separate incidents, there’s something going on with the staff,” said Maggie Hart, an attorney with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, a nonprofit group in D.C.
“The prison system is rotten,” Hart said. “This is one of the more rotten places.”
A serious shortage
Thomson, built in 2001 as a state-run prison, sits on the banks of the Mississippi River in a pattern of X-shaped buildings.
Illinois shuttered the facility over budget cuts before the U.S. government agreed to buy it in 2012 to alleviate overcrowding in federal prisons. Today, it houses roughly 950 male prisoners.
Thomson is also home to a so-called special management unit, a program for particularly violent inmates that had operated previously in a federal prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. A federal review of the Lewisburg unit in 2017 found the Bureau of Prisons violated its own policies by keeping inmates with mental illnesses in small, deteriorating cells at length and without proper treatment.
The Washington Lawyers’ Committee was among the groups that filed a lawsuit on behalf of Lewisburg prisoners.
The lawyers’ committee also followed the unit’s relaunch at Thomson, where some of the guards from Lewisburg were brought over, according to Jacqueline Kutnik-Bauder, the group’s deputy legal director.
Her group surveyed 40 prisoners in the special management unit at Thomson and heard similar accusations of inmates being held in restraints for “days on end”; being beaten by staff while restrained; and being provided inadequate food and water and medical and mental health treatment.
“You hear about things like this happening all over the place, but the consistency of this at Thomson is what’s unusual,” Kutnik-Bauder said.
NBC News has not independently verified the claims.
In a response, a Bureau of Prisons spokesperson said the agency “does not comment on pending litigation or matters subject to legal proceedings.” The Phillips family’s lawsuit and other allegations come as Thomson has faced a serious shortage of correctional officers across the board.
In 2021, prison nurses, case managers, cooks and other staff reportedly had to fill in as de facto guards because of more than 100 vacancies.
Members of Congress representing Illinois were so concerned about a “staffing crisis,” they told the Bureau of Prisons in a letter a year ago that “there have been five inmate deaths from fights or suicides that may have been prevented with additional staff.”
The American Federation of Government Employees Local 4070, which represents Thomson workers, said low pay has been a factor. Despite monthly job fairs at the prison and a retention bonus, the union said in March that it was still short 75 positions and called on more staffing after two employees were exposed to synthetic drugs during a mail screening and required hospitalization.
A third employee was hospitalized last week for drug exposure by mail, Local 4070 President Jon Zumkehr said.
He declined to comment on cases with ongoing investigations or internal personnel matters, but said two years ago, when Matthew Phillips and other inmates died, upward of 67 prison employees per day were enlisted to perform the additional duties of correctional officers.
Zumkehr added that having deficient staffing only exacerbates problems when dealing with inmates who have violent histories and mental health needs and aren’t getting the full attention and programs to help with rehabilitation.
“We have the hardest-working staff in the bureau, and we’re doing the best we can,” Zumkehr said.
The Bureau of Prisons did not address the lack of staffing and the union’s concerns at Thomson, but has said generally that its use of other employees as guards is based on a facility’s needs and told The Associated Press last year that they may do so “during irregular periods such as a pandemic.”
The bureau also told the AP that all of its more than 35,000 employees, no matter their position, are advised upon being hired that they may have to perform law enforcement functions.
At Thomson, an insufficient staffing level could not only affect morale among employees, but make conditions unsafe for inmates if there’s a lack of order and accountability, Hart, of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee, said.
Some of the inmates with whom her group is in contact have been at other prisons, but at Thompson, Hart said, “they say they’ve never experienced this level of violence, hatred and being treated as subhuman.”
Life and death
In their lawsuit, Matthew Phillips’ parents say they requested records under the Freedom of Information Act to the Bureau of Prisons to learn the circumstances surrounding his death.
The bureau denied their release, the suit says, citing the records are “categorically exempt from disclosure” because they’re tied to law enforcement proceedings. Jeff Phillips and his ex-wife, Susan Phillips, are seeking monetary damages as a result of their son’s death.
The bureau declined to comment about the suit.
In October 2014, federal agents arrested Matthew Phillips in a sting operation in the Austin, Texas, area. Prosecutors accused him of trafficking heroin, and he pleaded guilty to drug possession and money laundering charges. He was sentenced to more than seven years in prison.
In a sentencing memorandum, his public defender said he had been addicted to drugs since high school, but had no prior felony convictions and spent six months in in-patient treatment.
“That effort at rehabilitation obviously did not take,” the lawyer wrote in a request for a lighter sentence.
“He is very bright and enjoys good family support. … But Phillips fully understands the battle ahead of him and knows his only chance of a successful re-entry into society hinges on his recovery from addiction.”
Matthew Phillips bounced around the federal system before ending up in the U.S. Penitentiary Pollock in Louisiana.
In early 2019, he had run-ins with members of the Aryan Brotherhood, according to the lawsuit filed by Matthew Phillips’ parents. He was a target, the suit said, because of his Star of David tattoo.
The incident left Matthew Phillips fearful and tormented, and according to the suit, he filed a grievance with the Bureau of Prisons accusing prison staff of violating its policies because they placed him in the recreation yard at the same time as the Aryan-affiliated inmates.
The bureau said its prisons may use “special housing” to protect inmates “who believe their lives are in danger,” and it also “operates under the guiding principle that inmates should be housed in the least restrictive setting necessary to ensure their own safety.”
After filing his complaint, the suit says, the bureau did step in and transferred Matthew Phillips from Pollock to Thomson in Illinois.
But in late 2019, he found himself in the same situation: While in a recreation yard, an Aryan-affiliated inmate attacked him and a fight ensued, according to the Phillips’ suit.
The following March, it happened again. Matthew Philips was allowed outside for morning recreation and was attacked by inmates pouncing on his face with their feet, the suit said. No prison staff intervened, the suit added.
His parents were determined to learn everything that happened, including who was responsible. But his death occurred just before the coronavirus pandemic would put prisons across the U.S. on lockdown and pause less urgent investigations.
Then, last December, authorities announced a development: A federal grand jury indicted two inmates on charges of murder and hate crimes in connection with Matthew Phillips’ death.
The suspects were identified by the Justice Department as Brandon Simonson, 37, known as “Whitey,” and Kristopher Martin, 39, called “No Luck.”
According to an unsealed indictment, the men belonged to a white supremacist group, the Valhalla Bound Skinheads, and revered Adolf Hitler.
The indictment says they “continuously struck” Matthew Phillips in the upper body, face and head while he was defenseless and “despite verbal commands by correctional officers to stop.”
Simonson and Martin have pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Jeff Phillips said he believes the guards not only failed to physically intervene but that the prison, aware that there was conflict between his son and white supremacists, should never have allowed them to be in the same space.
“Why wasn’t there a plan in place to protect him?” he asked.
For Jeff Phillips, it’s an ongoing quest to understand what happened to his son, why he was transferred to Thomson, who failed to safeguard him there and what more can be done to prevent such deaths from occurring again, even in a system rife with violence.
The last time Jeff Phillips saw his son face-to-face was in late 2018, when he visited him in Pollock. He had slimmed down in prison, shaved his head and grown a beard — but was still the creative young man with an inquisitive mind.
Matthew Phillips described being in “survival mode,” and told his father how if two inmates fought, both would be punished by the staff even if one was merely trying to protect himself.
“‘Dad,” Matthew Phillips said, “if you don’t defend yourself, you’re going to be killed.’”
Just over a year later, he would be dead.