CHARLOTTE – In response to a serious COVID-19 outbreak at the federal prison complex in Butner, NC, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of North Carolina, Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, and Winston & Strawn filed a class-action lawsuit today seeking the release of vulnerable populations held at the facility. The lawsuit is asking for the constitutional rights of people incarcerated to be protected and conditions be made safe for those who remain in custody amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The ACLU and public health experts have warned from the beginning that jails and prisons would become incubators for COVID-19 – and the worsening outbreak in Butner is a tragic result of the Trump administration’s failure to heed these warnings,” said Maria Morris, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “Indeed, the virus is spreading through correctional facilities around the country, with devastating consequences for imprisoned people, staff, local health care workers, and the broader community. People’s lives are at stake, and we’re asking for immediate action to stem the outbreak.”
The new lawsuit asks a federal judge to immediately release enough incarcerated people who are medically vulnerable and appropriate candidates for compassionate release or home confinement to ensure that the remaining incarcerated people and staff can comply with CDC guidelines for physical distancing.
“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. The presence of the medical center at the facility makes the need for action much more urgent. The time is now to release incarcerated people who can go home and to implement basic infection control measures for those who must remain,” said Jonathan Smith, Executive Director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee. “This is imperative for the incarcerated population, public health, and consistent with public safety.”
Butner Federal Complex has one of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the country, over 300 incarcerated people and 40 staff members infected. As of May 26, ten incarcerated people in Butner have died of COVID-19. People incarcerated at Butner have reported not being provided masks or gloves and many of the men are housed in overcrowded dormitories of between 70 to 160 people.
“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. Those hit hardest will be disproportionately communities of color.”
Echoing the warnings of public health experts, U.S. Attorney General William Barr recently directed the BOP to “prioritize the use of home confinement as a tool for combatting the dangers that COVID-19 poses to our vulnerable inmates.” According to the new ACLU lawsuit, the BOP has failed to use its authority to reduce the population of Butner with sufficient speed or insufficient volume to mitigate the severe risk posed by COVID-19.
The new lawsuit builds on the ACLU’s litigation efforts to save the most vulnerable from the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the pandemic’s start, the ACLU has filed dozens of legal actions related to detention centers, prisons, and jails, and has urged government officials to ensure a response plan that protects the health, safety, and civil liberties of all people. The ACLU of North Carolina has an ongoing lawsuit to release and protect those under NC DPS in the Superior Court.