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Class Action Wants More Inmates Released From Federal Complex in Butner, North Carolina

— May 29, 2020

The lawsuit demands inmates at elevated risk for coronavirus be transferred to home confinement.

A class action is demanding that the Federal Correctional Complex in Butner, North Carolina, temporarily release medically compromised inmates who are at elevated risk for contracting severe coronavirus infections.

The Carolina Public Press reports that, to date, at least 10 inmates have already died from COVID-19.

“Butner is a tinderbox for COVID-19, and the stories emerging from its overcrowded facilities are harrowing,” the American Civil Liberties Union said in a press release e-mailed to The News & Observer. “The federal government needs to get vulnerable people out of harm’s way, and they need to do it immediately before more lives are lost.”

The lawsuit seeks to mitigate an impending disaster by transferring elderly or otherwise vulnerable inmates to home confinement. Butler, says the lawsuit, has inadequate healthcare facilities to deal with a coronavirus outbreak. And there are enough at-risk inmates in the prison that a rapidly spreading infection could violate detainees’ Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

An illustration of the novel coronavirus, named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), responsible for COVID-19. Image by CDC, via
An illustration of the novel coronavirus, named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), responsible for COVID-19. Image by CDC, via

While some inmates have already managed to transfer out of Butner through individual lawsuits, the ACLU and its allies want the federal Bureau of Prisons to approve more releases.

“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,” said Jonathon Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee, which is participating in the lawsuit on behalf of prisoners.

Smith suggested that Butner’s medical facility means that coronavirus cannot be easy contained.

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

Butner, says the Public Press, has four separate prisons with an overall inmate population of about 4,400. It is also home to one of the federal prison system’s six medical prisons, which now houses people who are risk for severe complication were they to contract coronavirus.

While the federal government has been reluctant to transfer vulnerable prisons outside of its custody, U.S. Attorney General William Barr issued a memorandum at the end of March recommending home confinement as a temporary alternative to incarceration.

“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 memorandum said. “But for some eligible inmates, home confinement might be more effective in protecting their health.”

The lawsuit alleges that the Bureau of Prisons opted to neglect both Barr’s advice and the urgency of the situation.

“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 this crisis,” the lawsuit states.


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