A corrections officer at a federal prison in North Carolina has died from “COVID-19 related issues,” according to the union that represents Bureau of Prisons staff.
The death has not yet been acknowledged by Bureau of Prisons officials but was confirmed to VICE News by a staff source at the Federal Correctional Complex in Butner, North Carolina.
The death marks a grim new milestone for the BOP, which has recorded at least 71 inmate deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic and more than 5,000 confirmed infections. The BOP reports that over 600 corrections officers and other staff members nationwide have tested positive for COVID-19, but currently acknowledges no deaths among its roughly 37,000 workers.
The death at FCC Butner involves a female corrections officer who worked at the low-security facility in the federal prison complex. A coworker, who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media, said the deceased held the rank of senior officer and had been on a ventilator for at least two weeks prior to her death.
The BOP press office has not responded to requests for comment on the death. VICE News is not naming the officer because it’s unclear whether her next of kin has been notified.
A note to staff from Warden Tamara Lyn, who leads the low-security prison at Butner, described the officer who died as, “a mother and friend to many,” who is survived by a son.
“Her death due to COVID-19 is a stark reminder that this pandemic is more than news stories, emergency lock down plans, or health screenings in the front lobby,” Lyn wrote in her message, which was obtained by VICE News. “This disease is dangerous. I know that each shift is a risk for you and I am grateful for your commitment. That you take this risk on a daily basis is remarkable.”
Lyn urged the staff to “please continue to take all precautions at work, at home, and in the community to reduce your risk.”
FCC Butner is a large federal prison complex northwest of Raleigh, North Carolina, with four facilities housing more than 4,400 total inmates in varying security levels. At least 15 inmates from the prisons at Butner have died from COVID-19, more than any other federal facility. Six of those deaths have occurred over the past week, including one Tuesday involving a 74-year-old prisoner serving a 12-month sentence for drug and weapons convictions.
The BOP officially confirms six deaths among the 1,170 total inmates at the low-security Butner facility where the staff member who died worked, along with 313 confirmed prisoner infections and 13 cases among staff, including six who have recovered from their illness.
Altogether, according to the BOP, the Butner prison complex currently has 304 active COVID-19 infections among inmates and 13 active cases among staff. The BOP reports that 234 Butner inmates and 38 staff tested positive for COVID-19 but have since recovered.
A June 1 letter from Butner Warden Thomas Scarantino to staff obtained by VICE News stated that 36 staff had been infected and returned to work after recovering, with 16 still out sick. The warden reported 167 “active/current positive” inmate cases, and 467 confirmed inmate infections to date. It’s unclear why numbers sent from the warden to his staff differ from those shared publicly by the BOP.
The warden’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the staff member’s death.
Due to a recent spike in cases at Butner’s low-security facility, Scarantino said in his letter, all inmates would be tested for COVID-19 by Wednesday. “Basically, we will end up having to move inmates around and house them based on their test results and symptoms,” the warden wrote, adding, “This plan has already proven to work and it will continue to work.”
An official with the American Federation of Government Employees, Council of Prison Locals-33, which represents BOP staff, sent a message from a regional union representative confirming the death at Bunter “with a heavy heart,” saying the officer died “from COVID-19 related issues.” No additional information was immediately available.
Another BOP staff member reportedly died from COVID-19 in mid-April, but autopsy results are pending and the agency has not recognized the cause of death. That officer, Robin Grubbs, was a case manager in the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta, and her family has said she was forced to work near infected inmates without receiving proper protective equipment.
Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer reported in mid-April that a federal prison staff member died from COVID-19, however a spokesperson for the LA County Health Department later told VICE News that the announcement was a mistake — the person who died was actually a healthcare worker that worked at a Los Angeles jail.
The conditions at FCC Butner during the coronavirus outbreak have drawn concern from both federal lawmakers and civil liberties groups. The ACLU and two other legal organizations filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Butner prisoners in late May, seeking to force the release of medically vulnerable inmates.
“Butner is a tinderbox for COVID-19, and the stories emerging from its overcrowded facilities are harrowing.”
“Butner is a tinderbox for COVID-19, and the stories emerging from its overcrowded facilities are harrowing. 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,” said Emily Harwell, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of North Carolina. “What was already a threat to public health has now become a death trap for hundreds of people who have no way out, and no way to keep themselves safe.”
On Tuesday, BOP Director Michael Carvajal testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee and was asked about the situation at Butner by North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis.
“They’ve done a great job,” Carvajal said. “That is a very difficult situation.”
Carvajal explained that Butner, which includes a federal medical center, is designated to house inmates with serious health problems.
“By the nature of the facility, some of our most sickly and vulnerable inmates are cared for there,” Carvajal said. “The virus was brought into one of our facilities there and we’ve done everything we can, I think, the warden and the staff there, to mitigate it.”
Carvajal added that BOP administrators and staff at Butner are trying to find “creative ways” to distance inmates from each other, and that prison officials are “looking at adjusting” how staff come and go from the prison.
In one case at Butner, staff were not the only ones coming and going from the prison. In mid-April, a 54-year-old inmate escaped from the prison’s minimum-security camp, then gave an interview with a local newspaper while on the run. Richard Cephas, 54, who was serving five years for a non-violent drug conviction, said he fled the prison because he felt staying there would be a death sentence. He eventually turned himself in on April 21.
“I have to be honest, I don’t feel that I should get time for escaping from prison,” Cephas told North Carolina’s News & Observer. “If it wasn’t for COVID I never would have left.”
The BOP’s chief medical officer also testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that Butner has been following CDC guidelines. Dr. Jeffrey Allensaid prison officials are “utilizing widespread testing” and “collaborating very closely with the community” for additional testing.” Butner inmates who are seriously ill are being sent to community hospitals, Allen said.
In his letter to staff on Monday, which was sent before the officer died, Butner Warden Scarantino thanked his employees for “for being here and for always stepping up and handling our business.” He noted that the prison has an ample supply of protective gear for staff, and that new workers were coming in to provide additional staffing.
“I am confident we are almost there,” the warden wrote. “Stay the course.”
Cover: The fence around the federal prison in Butner, North Carolina as seen on November 20, 2015. The prison camp houses three levels of security on the multi-building Federal Correctional Institute campus. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)