The recent assaults of two high-profile federal prisoners by fellow inmates have renewed concerns about whether the crisis-plagued federal Bureau of Prisons is capable of keeping inmates safe.
In the shadow of gangster James “Whitey” Bulger’s 2018 beating death and financier Jeffrey Epstein’s 2019 suicide, the agency is again under scrutiny for failing to protect high-profile prisoners from harm.
Chauvin, 47, the ex-Minneapolis police officer convicted of murdering George Floyd in 2020, was assaulted Nov. 24 in the law library 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 is charged with attempted murder and was moved 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.
Nassar, 60, the ex-U.S. women’s gymnastics team doctor who sexually abused athletes, was ambushed in his cell on July 9 at a federal penitentiary in Coleman, Florida. Other inmates stopped his attacker before officers arrived.
The attacks are symptoms of larger 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 that federal prisons are far safer than state prisons. The inmates suspected of attacking Chauvin and Nassar both have violent histories.
“No one’s sentence, regardless of their offense, includes being subjected to violence while they’re in prison," said Daniel Landsman, deputy director of policy at Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a criminal justice advocacy group. “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.”
An ongoing Associated Press investigation has uncovered deep problems within the Bureau of Prisons, including rampant sexual abuse and other staff criminal conduct, dozens of escapes, violence, deaths and understaffing that has hampered responses to emergencies, including inmate assaults and suicides.
The agency, 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.
Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz has cited management failures, flawed policies and incompetence as factors in Bulger’s killing and blamed “negligence, misconduct and outright job performance failures” for Epstein’s suicide as he awaited trial on sex trafficking charges.
The “serious deficiencies” connected to their deaths were "especially concerning given that the BOP would presumably take particular care in handling the custody and care of such inmates," Horowitz wrote.
Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters said lessons learned would be “applied to the broader BOP correctional landscape.” But the agency declined last week to tell the AP what changes have been made, saying it does not “discuss specific security practices.”
Peters also promised a security review after the gun breach last year. Asked for an update, the agency said it “does not comment on matters related to investigations.”
A spokesperson, Benjamin O’Cone, said the agency “takes seriously our duty to protect the individuals entrusted in our custody, as well as maintain the safety of correctional employees and the community.”
“We review safety protocols and implement corrective actions when identified,” O’Cone said.
Chauvin began his incarceration in solitary confinement at a maximum-security Minnesota state prison, “largely for his own protection,” his former lawyer wrote in court papers.
He transferred to FCI Tucson in August 2022 after agreeing to simultaneously serve all his punishment for Floyd’s murder in federal prison — a 21-year federal sentence for violating Floyd’s civil rights, later reduced by seven months, and a 22½-year state sentence for second-degree murder.
Chauvin’s sentencing judge was optimistic he'd fare better with fewer restrictions in federal prison.
Rather than solitary 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, those units still see violence, like Nassar’s stabbing in a “dropout yard” unit at the U.S. Penitentiary in Coleman, Florida.
Nassar was attacked after purportedly making a lewd comment while watching women’s tennis on TV. An inmate, identified as Shane McMillan, stabbed him repeatedly before four other inmates pulled him away.
McMillan was convicted of assaulting a Louisiana federal prison officer in 2006 and attempting to kill another inmate at the federal Supermax in Colorado, in 2011. He has yet to be charged with attacking Nassar. Court records didn't list a lawyer for him.
Prior to Chauvin’s stabbing, there were no public reports of violence toward him — but he too was at risk.
John Turscak, a former Mexican Mafia gang leader and one-time FBI informant charged with attacking Chauvin, told investigators he thought about stabbing him before attacking, federal prosecutors said.
Turscak stabbed Chauvin 22 times with an improvised knife, prosecutors said. FCI Tucson has struggled with staffing in the past, but the Bureau of Prisons said nearly every officer position is now filled.
Turscak told the FBI he attacked Chauvin because of his high profile, prosecutors said. Turscak said he chose the day after Thanksgiving — Black Friday — as a symbolic connection to Black Lives Matter and the Mexican Mafia’s “Black Hand” symbol, prosecutors said.
Turscak, 52, led a Mexican Mafia faction in the 1990s. He 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 didn't list a lawyer for him.
Despite Turscak’s arrest, Erickson said he and his client’s family have more questions — and concerns.
“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.”