The Deadliest Federal Prison During COVID-19: Butner NC

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Some 7,000 federal prisoners have contracted COVID-19; 94 have died. More than 700 infected correctional officers have carried the virus back and forth between their communities and their workplaces. Nowhere in the federal system has the outbreak been as deadly as at the giant Butner complex northeast of Durham, N.C., report the Raleigh News & Observer and The Marshall Project. Twenty-five prisoners there died of COVID-19, the most of any federal lockup. Butner is the only federal prison to have a confirmed staff death. Prison officials were slow to test for the disease, enabling infected men to spread the virus to neighbors in cramped dorms where social distancing is impossible. Prisoners say they went untested for six weeks or more even as their dorm mates fell ill, were taken to hospital and died.

Correctional officers and prisoner workers shuttling between five units became coronavirus vectors inside the prison and outside. Despite an order from the U.S. Attorney General to send medically vulnerable prisoners home, Butner officials were slow to release them. Butner has a hospital and four prisons filled with thousands of chronically sick men. Over two months, officials released fewer than 50 out of 4,700 incarcerated people to home confinement. Prison officials have not been able to establish physical distancing, the top tool against the coronavirus, said Dr. Jody Rich, an infectious disease specialist at Brown University. “Just watching what they were doing around there, it was pretty clear it was going to be a disaster,” said Dan Johnson, a former South Carolina prosecutor released from Butner after serving a year for misusing a government credit card. Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Sue Allison defended the response to the pandemic, noting that thousands of men were chronically ill and vulnerable to COVID-19 because of Butner’s status as a medical center.

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