Derek Chauvin's stabbing highlights security issues in federal prisons, experts say

When former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was sent to federal prison after pleading guilty to violating George Floyd's civil rights, manyexpertsconsidered it to be a safer option for him than state prison, which is where he was previously sent after being convicted of Floyd's murder.

However, Chauvin's lawyer at the time, Eric Nelson, anticipated he could become a target and pushed for him to be kept out of general population. More than a year later, Nelson's concerns were validated: Chauvin was stabbed 22 times Nov. 24 by a fellow inmate who told investigators he attacked the former officer because of his notoriety, according to court documents.

The attack comes after former sports doctor Larry Nassar, who was convicted of sexually abusing athletes, was stabbed in July at a federal penitentiary in Florida; the beating death of James “Whitey” Bulger at a West Virginia federal prison in 2018; as well as the suicides of “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski a federal prison medical center in North Carolina in June and disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein at a federal jail in New York in 2019. The latest violent incident has renewed concerns about the Federal Bureau of Prisons' ability to keep incarcerated people, particularly the most notorious, safe.

"His family is very concerned about the facility’s capacity to protect Derek from further harm," the law firm representing Chauvin said in a statement last week. "They remain unassured that any changes have been made to the faulty procedures that allowed Derek’s attack to occur in the first place."

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In this image taken from video, former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin addresses the court at the Hennepin County Courthouse, June 25, 2021, in Minneapolis. Chauvin was convicted in the killing of George Floyd.

How dangerous are federal prisons?

Federal prisons have a reputation for allegedly being safer in part because they're more likely to house people convicted of nonviolent offenses like white-collar criminals, according to Christine Tartaro, a professor of criminal justice at Stockton University who has researched violence in corrections facilities. While low-security prison camps - sometimes dubbed "Club Fed" - still have that reputation, Tartaro said higher-security federal facilities can be much more dangerous.

"Violence tends to vary by security level of the institution and also by the strength and ability of the administration," she said.

In November 2022, an inmate at the Tucson facility’s low-security prison camp tried to shoot a visitor in the head. In 2018, lawyers for Nassar, the disgraced USA gymnastics doctor, said he was attacked at the U.S. Penitentiary-Tucson, which is part of the same prison complex.

The bureau operates 122 prisons around the country, according to its website. Between October 2021 and October 2023, there have been 361 guilty findings of assault with serious injury and 17 guilty findings of killing in its institutions, according to Randilee Giamusso, a spokesperson for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. That number doesn't include those found guilty of "assault without serious injury," meaning attempted assaults or attacks with less serious injuries.

In this Feb. 5, 2018 file photo, Larry Nassar, former sports doctor who admitted molesting some of the nation's top gymnasts, appears in Eaton County Court in Charlotte, Mich.

How do prisons protect high-profile people who are incarcerated?

At the maximum-security Minnesota state prison where Chauvin was previously held, he was mainly kept in solitary confinement for his own protection, Nelson wrote in court documents last year. It is unclear what specific security measures the bureau had in place to protect Chauvin, who was sent to the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Tucson in August 2022, or what circumstances led to his stabbing.

"In my experience with them, they don't have a specific set of criteria or practices or whatever designed to protect high-risk inmates," Tom Heffelfinger, former U.S. Attorney for Minnesota, said of the bureau.

Giamusso said in a statement to USA TODAY the bureau does not explain specific internal security practices for privacy, safety and security reasons, but the agency "takes seriously our duty to protect the individuals entrusted in our custody and 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," she said.

Giamusso added the bureau monitors and controls the transfer, temporary release and community activities of certain incarcerated people, including those like Chauvin who have attracted widespread attention because of their crimes or who have a background that could cause them to be targeted, like former law enforcement or gang members. Giamusso said a higher level of review for certain activities is required for these people, known as central inmate monitoring cases.

Theodore Kaczynski looks around as U.S. Marshals prepare to take him down the steps at the federal courthouse to a waiting vehicle on June 21, 1996, in Helena, Mont.

Officials could have done more to protect Chauvin, experts say

Cameron Lindsay, a former warden and Federal Bureau of Prisons employee, said the prison should have kept Chauvin isolated like he was in state prison.

"When they bring in a high-profile inmate like that, who is a likely target of assault, they have to safeguard them, and the only way to safeguard someone as notorious as Derek Chauvin is to keep them isolated in protective custody," said Lindsay, now a corrections consultant

But, Tartaro noted, though protective custody is sometimes necessary, it is often undesirable for the incarcerated person due to the intense restrictions and nearly constant isolation. Protective custody is also meant to be temporary, not a long-term living arrangement, according to Jack Donson, a federal corrections consultant.

Donson said the seriousness of Chauvin's offense and the length of his sentence likely resulted in him being placed in a medium-security facility like Tucson. But, he said prison officials should have placed Chauvin in a low-security institution to lower his risk of harm.

"When they see the issues that Chauvin raises - the law enforcement issues, the racial issues - he's just a hard guy to maintain," Donson said. "But they could put him in a low where the chances go way down from a medium."

Federal Bureau of Prisons struggling with staffing, management issues

Chauvin's attack came after a report from the Justice Department’s inspector general last December found multiple levels of staff and management failures preceded the killing of Bulger, the former head of Boston's Winter Hill Gang and an FBI informant, which came less than 12 hours after he was transferred to the U.S. Penitentiary at Hazelton.

In June, a watchdog reported Epstein's suicide was made possible because the bureau failed to remedy "chronic problems," including job performance and functional failures, staff shortages and a "widespread disregard" for its policies and procedures. Epstein pleaded not guilty to charges related to drug trafficking and sexually abusing dozens of underage girls before his death.

Giamusso said the agency has made several improvements to its medical transfer system and implemented practices to address the issues outlined in both of these reports.

The medium-security prison in Tucson where Chauvin was attacked has struggled with security lapses and staff shortages. Giamusso said correctional services staffing at the institution was at approximately 99% on the day of Chauvin's stabbing, but acknowledged that staffing has been a "long-standing concern" for the agency.

"Our agency is dealing with a staffing crisis and has been transparent about the challenges we face and the significant resources we have committed to recruiting and hiring," she said.

James "Whitey" Bulger had been sentenced in 2013 to spend the rest of his life in prison.

How did Derek Chauvin get stabbed?

John Turscak, a former member of the Mexican Mafia and an FBI informant, is accused of stabbing Chauvin on Black Friday in the law library at FCI Tucson, according to court documents. Investigators said Turscak told FBI agents he had been thinking about attacking Chauvin for about a month

Turscak has since been charged with attempted murder, assault with intent to commit murder, assault with a dangerous weapon and assault resulting in serious bodily injury.

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