CHARLOTTE, N.C. October 27, 2020 – In response to intensifying COVID-19 outbreaks at the federal prison complex in Butner, North Carolina, 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 adequate medical care for people incarcerated in Butner Federal Correctional Complex. 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.
“Corrections institutions have continuously failed to take even the most basic life-saving measures to protect incarcerated people from COVID-19 — nowhere is this truer than Butner, which has been the deadliest of all federal facilities during this pandemic,” said Maria Morris, senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “Prisons and jails are the sites of the biggest hotspots for COVID-19 everywhere in the country. If the courts don’t intervene to mitigate the humanitarian crisis unfolding, they will be responsible for the lives lost.”
Plaintiffs claim that people who need medical care for issues other than COVID-19 also haven’t been able to access it during the pandemic, a violation of their rights. The lawsuit also states that everyone who has died from COVID-19 at Butner had a known medical condition that made them more vulnerable to the virus, yet officials didn’t take adequate steps to protect them, in violation of the Rehabilitation Act.
“More than 1000 incarcerated persons at Butner have been infected with COVID and 27 have died,” said Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. “This was avoidable had the Bureau of Prisons taken steps to reduce the population to allow for physical conditioning or implemented well-established and widely published infection control practices. The failure to do what is necessary to stop the spread of the virus continues to today. The callous indifference to the health and safety of persons who are held in the facility is shocking.”
John Dailey, who died of COVID-19 at Butner in early July, represents one such instance of the failure of prison officials at Butner to protect incarcerated people. John was sick for weeks before he was evaluated. By the time they took him off his housing unit to be evaluated, his condition had already deteriorated so much that he had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance.
“The government’s inaction to save lives in Butner is negligence at best, but we believe there’s still time to rectify the situation,” said Em Harwell, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of North Carolina. “We’ve seen people die from COVID-19, like John Dailey, before even getting any medical attention. Quite literally, there are lives that rest in the hands of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. For thousands of people, acting now is better late than never.”
The new lawsuit comes after a U.S. district court judge denied a preliminary injunction in a previous case in May. The ACLU of North Carolina has an ongoing lawsuit in state court to release and protect people currently incarcerated in state prisons.
The complaint is online, here.