A cloistered culture in the nation’s federal prisons leads to infections and deaths

By: - June 3, 2020 7:00 am

Inmates get fresh air at Butner Federal Correctional Institution in Butner, N.C. Eleven states, not including North Carolina and Florida, have abolished prison gerrymandering, in which inmates are counted for purposes of drawing voting districts as residents of the prisons, jails and detention centers where they were imprisoned when counted. Credit: Sarah D. Davis/Getty Images

This is the second of two parts of an investigation into the federal prison system related to secrecy, conditions, and delays in releasing inmates because of COVID-19. The first installment was published Monday.

In the cramped cells and crowded dormitories of the nation’s federal prisons, it’s difficult to practice the kind of social distancing that goes on in the outside world to avoid exposure to coronavirus.

In some cases, an inmate can’t even get sufficient soap and antiseptics to stay clean — one of the fundamental U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for avoiding infection during the COVID-19 crisis.

And it’s hard to tell how many federal inmates have ever been tested for the coronavirus, raising doubts about whether the federal prison population is safe.

Seventy-three inmates have died, including one on Tuesday, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

In the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, Congress authorized the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in late March to release certain inmates early to complete their sentences in home confinement, to reduce infection and mortality from the disease.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr, in memos issued on March 26 and April 3, called on prison authorities systemwide to use their early-release authority on behalf of medically vulnerable inmates deemed low security risks, starting with prisons where infections and deaths were flaring.

Although Barr wrote, “time is of the essence,” his directives are not being enforced.

A series of lawsuits filed against the BOP claim certain federal prisons are refusing to exercise their authority and are knowingly, unnecessarily exposing inmates to sickness and death when they could be released to home confinement instead.

A Florida Phoenix review of hundreds of pages of federal court records in those lawsuits has shined some light on prison conditions during the pandemic, even as the BOP maintains secrecy about what goes on inside the walls of its facilities.

The bureau holds 166,000 inmates in 122 prisons nationwide, roughly 5,500 of whom had tested positive for COVID-19 through Tuesday, of whom BOP lists roughly 3,800 as recovered.

The bureau does not report how many test results are negative; which if any inmates are tested more than once; nor how many inmates remain untested — making it hard for the public to understand the extent of the pandemic in the close quarters of prison cells and dorms.

Butner: An escapee pleads for soap and antiseptics

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs recently filed a lawsuit on behalf of inmates at Butner Federal Correctional Institution, a three-part complex of low- and medium-security facilities in Butner, N.C.

The BOP reports that 15 inmates have died there: one on Tuesday and five others in the past 10 days.

Attorneys for inmates at Butner say the prisons are too cramped and too crowded to practice safe distancing, among other challenges.

The lawsuit accuses prison authorities of endangering their wards by “failing to control the spread of the novel coronavirus … and by failing to provide proper medical care for those inmates infected with the virus.”

Also at Butner, inmate Richard Cephas escaped in early April and told a Raleigh News & Observer reporter he saw no other way “to save my life.”

Cephas said it was impossible to safely practice distancing in the prison and that staff disregarded his pleas for sufficient soap and antiseptics to keep himself and his surroundings sanitized. Prison authorities denied the claims.

Cephas turned himself in three weeks later, telling the reporter that his escape made life hard on his family. But first, he said, he contacted civil rights groups that he hopes will help him. He told the reporter he believes he qualifies for release to home confinement, notwithstanding his escape.

“I had to save my life,” Cephas said in a videoconference with the News & Observer while he was in hiding.

The lawsuit filed last week against Butner alleges prison officials know of the danger in its facilities and have the means to release their most vulnerable inmates — but are choosing not to do it.

“Respondents have not taken the necessary steps to address the risk faced by the people in their custody. They have opposed motions for compassionate release, and they have failed to order furloughs or transfers to home confinement with sufficient speed and in sufficient numbers,” the lawsuit states.

“They have failed to make other arrangements within the facility to allow for adequate physical distancing. And they have failed to implement effective isolation, quarantine, testing, screening, hygiene, and disinfecting policies or meaningfully modify movement protocols for staff and incarcerated people.”

U.S. District Judge Louise Wood Flanagan responded by ordering Butner authorities to immediately supply adequate information to identify inmates eligible for release.

Bureau of Prisons: cloistered culture

Oakdale Federal Correctional Institution, a two-facility complex in Oakdale, La., was the first federal prison to have an inmate die of COVID-19.

Through Tuesday, eight inmates had died at Oakdale or in nearby hospitals after becoming severely ill. Nearly 200 inmates have tested positive for coronavirus, but it’s not clear how many were tested overall, meaning more could be ill and contagious without symptoms.

The Bureau of Prisons does not disclose full data on its testing efforts.

It also refuses to disclose details — other than the total number — about inmates who have been granted early release due to COVID-19. Bureau representatives cite inmate privacy concerns for withholding such information, although information is emerging piecemeal through the records filed in lawsuits and through inmate advocates.

Through Tuesday, BOP reported it had released 3,610 inmates to home confinement since the attorney general’s memos. That is about 2 percent of the prison population. Qualified inmates were ordered to quarantine in prison for two weeks before transferring out.

More than 3 percent of the population has tested positive for COVID-19, most of whom have recovered, according to BOP data. Thousands more inmates remain untested.

Florida is home to nine federal prisons, incarcerating roughly 10,000 men and women, and numerous regional “reentry” centers for inmates transitioning to discharge near the end of their sentences.

Six of those prisons, in Sumter County, Miami and Tallahassee, and regional reentry centers in Tampa and Dania reported 27 infections but no deaths among inmates or employees through Tuesday.

The bureau does not report separately about the extent of testing in the Florida prisons. Neither does it report the identities nor even the total number of Florida-based inmates released to home confinement or granted compassionate release.

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper.