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Butner has nation's worst prison COVID-19 outbreak; families describe anxiety, worry among inmates

Of 83 known cases in Granville, 62 are inmates

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BUTNER — An outbreak of COVID-19 cases at the federal prison complex in Butner pushed the official tally of known cases in Granville County to 83 on Wednesday.

Of those cases, at least 62 are associated with the prison, local health officials said. That number is more than 6 times greater than a week ago, when just nine inmates were reported to have been infected with the new coronavirus.

There were no deaths connected to the coronavirus in Granville County as of Wednesday, according to statistics from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

Lisa Macon Harrison, health director of Granville Vance Public Health, said all local infections are considered community spread.

While the number of infections has ballooned at the prison, Harrison said the efforts of local and state officials to prevent local infections appear to be working.

“We are doing everything in our power to make sure that any positives that are residents of Granville County, that we isolate, that we educate, that we contact trace, that we let contacts know that they’ve been a contact to a positive case,” Harrison said. “So far that has worked in both Granville and Vance counties keeping our numbers pretty low in the community.”

There are 14 known infections in Vance County on Wednesday, according to the health department. Between both Vance and Granville, about 200-250 people have been tested for the virus, Harrison said.

Statewide, there were more than 2,800 known infections, which had caused 270 hospitalizations and 33 deaths, the state reported Monday morning.

‘Ticking time bomb’

According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons website, the number of infections at the Butner prison complex, which comprises four facilities ranging from low- to medium-security that house a combined 4,700 inmates, includes at least one staffer. Among inmates, 40 of the infected are in the medium-security building — the largest outbreak among any federal prison.

A spokeswoman for the Butner prison did not return calls this week. The prison complex did not respond to an email and multiple calls made to facilities at the prison were not picked up.

The bureau announced last week it will confine most all prisoners to their cells for at least 14 days at all prisons, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. During the lockdown, prisoners will still have access to normal services, like mental health treatment and education programs, the bureau said. Most visitors are barred and inmates are regularly subjected to health screenings.

It’s not clear what specific efforts have been made at the Butner prison complex.

According to multiple family members of inmates who spoke to the Butner-Creedmoor News, most inmates are kept in large holding areas with dozens of others, making it impossible to effectively social distance.

Morgan Williamson, whose dad Douglas is serving a four-year sentence for mail fraud, said she was told the prison gave face masks to some inmates last week. But her dad told her that frequently touched surfaces, including shared computers and phones, were not being sanitized, and inmates who hand out food are not wearing gloves.

Her dad is 56 and is a diabetic, Williamson said. She said the risk of infection, and even death from the virus, “is like a ticking time bomb, Russian roulette, you know?”

Williamson and three other family members of inmates who spoke to the Butner-Creedmoor News said the prison this week had removed all apparently healthy inmates from one of the four facilities on the campus and distributed them among the other buildings.

None of the family members said they or their incarcerated loved one were given an explanation for the movement, but most said they were concerned it would seed new infections around the prison.

“I understand if this had been done proactively, but reactively you’re just mixing more sickness into the pot,” Williamson said. “It’s a wildfire.”

Home release possible

Amanda Toney, whose boyfriend Brandon Henry is serving a six-year sentence for a nonviolent drug offense, said the transfers have now made living quarters crammed beyond what they are designed for. Inmates from other buildings are sleeping in TV rooms and hallways.

“They can’t even move,” Toney said of how crowded it had become.

She said inmates like her boyfriend are humans with rights, which she feels are being violated. She said her boyfriend accepts that he will serve time, but he should be allowed to social distance.

“It’s almost like he has a death sentence when he doesn’t,” Toney said.

U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr last month instructed prisons to prioritize home confinement of inmates suitable for release, in an effort to reduce inmate populations and lessen the risk of outbreaks.

Nationally, 615 inmates have been selected for home confinement, or about 0.4% of all federal inmates, according to the prison bureau.

Williamson said if her father was released, he would be confined to his home in rural Georgia, would not be interacting with others and would be afraid of violating the terms of his release. She said that in prison, her diabetic father risks dying of the coronavirus, and never meeting his new 4-month-old grandson.

Harrison, the health director, said the county remains ready to assist the prison as needed, but currently the prison has handled all testing, treating and prevention related to the virus among inmates.

“We are certainly in solidarity with them and in public health partnership with them to make sure they have everything they need locally to try and mitigate and contain that outbreak as best they can,” Harrison said.