The federal medical center at Butner is a part of the Bureau of Prisons complex there. A federal lawsuit from civil rights organizations seeks to free many inmates with high-risk factors for COVID-19. Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Prisons

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A class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday morning by several civil rights organizations is seeking the release of medically vulnerable people from the Butner Federal Correctional Complex, where 10 inmates have died from COVID-19.

The lawsuit claims that the inadequacy of prison health care, overcrowding and the high number of medically vulnerable people housed at Butner create an environment that violates the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

[The latest: North Carolina coronavirus daily updates]

“Those working and living in Butner and the community at large are placed at an unreasonable risk due to the crowded conditions and inadequate response of the Bureau of Prisons at Butner,” Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee, one of the groups bringing the lawsuit, said in a press release.

“The presence of the medical center at the facility makes the need for action much more urgent.”

More than 4,400 people are incarcerated in four prisons on the Butner complex, including one of the federal system’s six medical prisons, which houses people who are at particular risk for health complications should they contract COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

The worst outbreak has been at one of the two medium-security prisons, where there have been 222 confirmed cases and nine deaths due to COVID-19. Of those who tested positive, the Bureau of Prisons reports 179 have recovered.

Among staff at that prison, the bureau reports 26 have tested positive, and four remain positive for COVID-19. The BOP relies on staff self-reporting and temperature checks for these numbers.

The lawsuit also scrutinizes the bureau’s testing and reporting. First, the suit claims, the BOP has not tested an adequate number of people at the prisons. About 10% of the people incarcerated across the four prisons have been tested for COVID-19, and at least one person in each prison has tested positive.

Second, the reporting of positive tests has been inconsistent. In just one example, the BOP updated the number of people who had tested positive at some point, somehow decreasing the number of cases from five days prior.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, Western Division. The BOP said it will not comment on pending litigation.

On March 26, U.S. Attorney General William Barr issued a memorandum to the director of the BOP, directing him to prioritize the use of home confinement.

“Many inmates will be safer in BOP facilities, where the population is controlled and there is ready access to doctors and medical care,” Barr’s office wrote. “But for some eligible inmates, home confinement might be more effective in protecting their health.”

Since then, the lawsuit claims, the BOP has moved only 2% of prisoners in its custody to home confinement. This, according to the lawsuit, is not an adequate decrease in prison population to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The warden, the BOP director and BOP medical director are named as defendants in the suit, which accuses the federal government of inaction.

“BOP knows of these conditions, the extreme threat they pose and the necessary measures that must be implemented to protect prisoners and yet has, with deliberate indifference, failed to take critical steps to address the crisis,” the lawsuit reads.

In affidavits attached to the litigation, prisoners at Butner described the difficulty in getting medical care even before the first inmates tested positive for COVID-19 at the end of March.

Most of the affidavits are from inmates with chronic medical conditions like compromised immune systems, lung or heart disease and cancer. Many are at risk simply due to advanced age. Many at-risk prisoners have requested home confinement or compassionate release.

Roger Goodwin, who is incarcerated at FCI Butner Medium 1, the prison with the most severe outbreak, described lax enforcement of wearing masks, nonexistent social distancing and slow response to illness among inmates. By the time he was tested, he said, over 200 people in his camp had contracted COVID-19, according to a statement released by the plaintiffs.

Other men who submitted affidavits described the impossibility of social distancing due to sharing bathrooms, sleeping within a few feet of other men, using phones that are close to each other and not cleaned after each use, working shoulder to shoulder at computers and lining up for meals and medications close to other men.

They also described being issued masks, though enforcement of wearing them was inconsistent, both for staff and inmates. Staff members rotate units, meaning that they move from units where people who have tested positive for COVID-19 to units where the men had not.

This lawsuit is one of dozens that the American Civil Liberties Union has filed around the country, often in partnership with other legal rights organizations, attempting to force prisons to decrease their populations. The North Carolina chapter of the ACLU filed a lawsuit in state court that is ongoing, though the judge dismissed the request for emergency action.

Jordan Wilkie

Jordan Wilkie is a Report for America corps member and is the lead contributing reporter covering election integrity, open government, and civil liberties for Carolina Public Press. Email jwilkie@carolinapublicpress.org to contact him.

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