Stabbing of Derek Chauvin Raises Questions About Inmate Safety

The stabbing on Friday of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer convicted of murdering George Floyd in 2020, at a special unit inside a Tucson, Ariz., prison is the latest in a series of attacks against high-profile inmates in the troubled, short-staffed federal Bureau of Prisons.

The assault comes less than five months after Larry Nassar, the doctor convicted of sexually abusing young female gymnasts, was stabbed multiple times at the federal prison in Florida. It also follows the release of Justice Department reports detailing incompetence and mismanagement at federal detention centers that led to the deaths in recent years of James Bulger, the Boston gangster known as Whitey, and Jeffrey Epstein, who had been charged with sex trafficking.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons confirmed that an inmate at the Tucson prison was stabbed around 12:30 p.m. on Friday, though the bureau did not identify Mr. Chauvin, 47, by name. The agency said in a statement that the inmate required “life-saving measures” before being rushed to a hospital emergency room nearby. The office of Keith Ellison, the Minnesota attorney general who prosecuted the former police officer, identified the inmate as Mr. Chauvin.

He is likely to survive, according to two people with knowledge of the situation who were not authorized to discuss the incident publicly.

On Saturday, the prison remained on lockdown while law enforcement agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, examined the crime scene and interviewed witnesses. Family visits to the facility have been suspended indefinitely, according to the prison’s website.

The facility in Tucson where Mr. Chauvin was stabbed is referred to as a “dropout yard,” one of several special protective units within the Federal Bureau of Prisons system housing informants, people convicted of sex crimes, former gang members and former law enforcement personnel, among others, according to Joe Rojas, who retired earlier this month as president of the union local representing workers at the Federal Correctional Complex near Coleman, Fla.

These specialized facilities — including units in Tucson, Coleman (where Mr. Nassar was stabbed), and Terre Haute, Ind. — are supposed to provide an additional measure of safety for high-profile inmates. In turn, such inmates tend to avoid conflicts and disciplinary infractions prevalent in the wider prison population, for fear of losing their protected status.

“There is a different inmate code at these places,” Mr. Rojas said.

It was not clear how Mr. Chauvin, who is serving a sentence of just over two decades in federal prison after he was convicted of state murder charges and a federal charge of violating the constitutional rights of Mr. Floyd, was assaulted. Nor was it clear why prison officials failed to protect one of the most hated, and vulnerable, inmates in the 160,000-person federal prison system.

A bureau spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Chauvin, who is white, killed Mr. Floyd, who was Black, by kneeling on his neck for nine and a half minutes while he lay handcuffed on the street. The incident set off the largest protests of a generation and led to calls to reform or defund the police.

Mr. Chauvin negotiated a plea deal with prosecutors in his federal case, in part, to serve his sentence in a federal prison, which his legal team considered safer than a state prison. Before his federal deal, Mr. Chauvin was serving a state sentence in solitary confinement for 23 hours each day in Minnesota.

State prison officials said at the time that Mr. Chauvin had been isolated because of concerns for his safety.

Mr. Ellison expressed concerns about the level of protection on the former officer.

“I am sad to hear that Derek Chauvin was the target of violence,” the Minnesota attorney general, who was informed by federal officials of the attack late Friday, said in a statement. “He was duly convicted of his crimes and, like any incarcerated individual, he should be able to serve his sentence without fear of retaliation or violence.”

While the specific details of the attack on Mr. Chauvin are not yet known, they appear to fit into a pattern of other attacks documented by Michael E. Horowitz, the Justice Department’s inspector general, who has issued two reports in the past year calling upon the prison bureau to improve procedures and oversight of high-profile inmates.

In December last year, Mr. Horowitz issued a scathing 65-page report on the death of Mr. Bulger at the federal prison in Hazelton, W. Va., detailing “staff and management performance failures; bureaucratic incompetence; and flawed, confusing, and insufficient policies and procedures,” that allowed inmates to fatally beat the 89-year-old with a padlock hours after he had been transferred into the general population.

In June, the inspector general concluded a yearslong probe into the death of Mr. Epstein, a well-connected financier who was found dead in a cell with a bedsheet tied around his neck in 2019, disclosing a similar pattern of lax management and missteps.

While the inspector general’s office confirmed the department’s determination that Mr. Epstein had killed himself, the report described a remarkable, at times unexplained, succession of circumstances that made it easy for him to take his own life. For example, the jail’s staff members allowed Mr. Epstein to hoard extra bedding and clothing, even though he had tried to hang himself earlier.

“The combination of negligence, misconduct and outright job performance failures documented in this report all contributed to an environment in which arguably one of the B.O.P.’s most notorious inmates was provided with the opportunity to take his own life,” Mr. Horowitz’s report said.

Theodore J. Kaczynski, the man known as the Unabomber, who killed three people and injured 23 in a bombing rampage from 1978 to 1995, died by suicide in June at a federal prison medical center in North Carolina.

Mr. Nassar, who is serving a sentence of up to 60 years, was attacked by an inmate wielding a homemade weapon in a common area of a specialized protective unit at the U.S. Penitentiary Coleman II.

Mr. Bulger, Mr. Epstein and Mr. Nassar were all assigned to the federal prison complex in Tucson at one time or another.

Bureau of Prison officials have struggled to cope with an exodus of staff — particularly among corrections officers and medical workers — who are able to find better-paying, lower-stress jobs in the private sector, a factor Mr. Horowitz acknowledged in the Bulger and Epstein reports. In many instances, prison officials have been forced to staff guard shifts with teachers, case managers, counselors, facilities workers and even secretaries.

Colette S. Peters, the director of the Bureau of Prisons, said in an interview earlier this year that filling vacancies “is our No. 1 priority,” even as she tackles a host of other issues, including the sexual abuse of female prisoners and staff members, the overuse of solitary confinement and an increase in suicides.

It is not clear if any of those issues played a role in the attack on Mr. Chauvin. But Richard Hernandez, a corrections officer who serves as president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 3955, which represents the staff at Tucson, said chronic staffing problems “have had an impact on the overall functioning” of prisons, including at Tucson.

The targeting of Mr. Chauvin is likely to increase scrutiny of the bureau even as the national debate over police reform continues to play out.

Shaila Dewan contributed reporting from New York.

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