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Lawsuit: Butner prison crowded sick inmates with healthy ones, staff acted with 'deliberate indifference'

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BUTNER — Several prisoners and civil rights groups have sued the federal prison in Butner, claiming the staff recklessly mismanaged its response to the COVID-19 pandemic and put prisoners at risk of infection and death.

The 71-page lawsuit asks a judge to immediately remove vulnerable inmates from the prison until it can comply with federal social distancing guidelines.

A spokesperson for the Federal Bureau of Prisons said that the bureau had no comment.

Filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups, the lawsuit alleges that inadequate measures within the facility means COVID-19 “unreasonably threatens the life, health, and safety of incarcerated people and staff.”

More than 160 inmates and staff are currently infected with COVID-19, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons. More than 400 inmates and staff members have tested positive at Butner. At least eight have died.

The lawsuit says there are more than 4,430 prisoners kept in the complex designed for fewer than 4,000 inmates. This makes it impossible for inmates to practice social distancing, the suit says.

Butner is also homes to a large federal medical center, which houses inmates who need intensive medical care, including those receiving cancer treatment.

The lawsuit alleges that the prison isolates inmates who test positive are isolated by putting them in cells normally used for punitive solitary confinement. Others with the virus are quarantined in the chapel with only a “makeshift wall” separating them from other inmates.

Roger Duane Goodwin, one of the inmates represented in the lawsuit, claims that after he passed out, he was told to drink more water and returned the unit with other prisoners. After he passed out a second time, he received a test and was declared positive.

He also said that the assistant warden told men in his unit that wearing a mask would result in a disciplinary write-up and that masks were not always worn by staff.

The lawsuit alleges that inmates are only quarantined if they have a high temperature and that most people can only get their temperature checked if they put in for a sick call, which requires a $2 co-pay.

The lawsuit claims that the Bureau of Prisons “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 bureau “as a whole — and Butner in particular — have failed for nearly two months to adequately protect the incarcerated people under their charge.”

CORRECTION (5-28-2020): A previously version of this story incorrectly reported the number of inmates who had died of COVID-19 at the federal prison. The story relied on inaccurate data provided by local health officials, who have since corrected that data. As of Thursday, eight inmates are known to have died.