Locked in a Crowded TV Room: Pandemic Revelations From a Federal Prison

    Like many others affected by the coronavirus crisis, Simon,* a 43-year-old Black man, was confined to a room with a television for days in April 2020.

    The difference, though, is that he was living, 24/7, with nine other incarcerated men in the small space of a day room at one of the federal prisons hit hardest by the pandemic—the Butner prison complex in North Carolina. He and 200 others are incarcerated in the low-security FCI Butner camp, while 659 are imprisoned at FCI Butner Medium I.

    During recreational time, Simon also shared the space with additional incarcerated men, bringing the total number of imprisoned folks using the TV room, as he called it, to around 60, he estimated in correspondences with Filter.

    “This is where we had to live and eat so social distancing went out the window,” Simon wrote in a May 1 email. “We had nowhere to put our property (lockers, or boxes) so we had our property in trash bags surrounding our bunk beds while being surrounded by the inmates trying to watch TV, use the computer, and using the phone.”

    The Bureau of Prisons (BOP), the agency operating the Butner complex, declined to comment on particular incarcerated people’s allegations. A spokesperson told Filter that these concerns have been relayed to Butner staff.

    Without testing any prisoners, the facility reportedly divided roughly 60 men who were housed in one unit into three other populated units⁠—while 10 “overflow” prisoners, including Simon, were placed in the TV room from April 6 to April 10.

    Even when just the base-level 10 prisoners were in the TV room, basic social distancing could not be followed.

    “We were told that they were trying to keep us safe and needed an empty unit to place the sick inmates if and when they needed to,” wrote Simon. For the three units each receiving 15-20 new men, he explained, bed space was limited. So the “administration decided to move our bunk beds from our original unit and put them in the only place they could find, which was the TV room of the new unit.”

    There, social distancing was impossible. The TV room measured around 41 feet by 27 feet, roughly 1,100 square feet, Simon estimated, having counted the floor tiles, which he believes to be square feet. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for maintaining a minimum distance of six feet apart, each individual must be allotted 113 square feet. So even when just the base-level 10 prisoners were in the TV room, basic social distancing could not be followed.

    Another person housed in the TV room is sure that his placement sparked, or at least added fuel to, the fire that’s now gripping the facility. A total of 207 Butner-complex prisoners had tested positive as of May 11, qualifying the prison as the federal facility with the fifth-highest number of positive prisoners.

    “The way staff moved us around and housed us on top of each other caused the outbreak,” wrote Butner prisoner Theron Thompson, a 47-year-old Black man, in a May 6 email. As of May 7, the TV room is still being used to house prisoners, this time for those who are returning from hospitals, Simon said.

    Others have reported that conditions in the dorm units were conducive to the spread of coronavirus. Released from the facility on April 9, former Butner prisoner K.C. Gleaton told a local news outlet that he and others in his unit were each given one mask, only first issued on April 6. “[N]o gloves, no soap to wash our hands” were distributed, he added. Another recently released prisoner, Brian Bronson, told news station ABC 11 on April 17 that corrections officers had been threatening to discipline incarcerated men if they were found with makeshift masks crafted from clothing.

    Medical staff, who were reportedly conducting temperature checks, dismissed Simon’s and other occupants’ complaints, he said, as merely indications of “a cold or allergy.”

    During Simon’s days-long confinement in the hazardous space, he said he experienced headaches and body chills. Others, he reported, had a “bad cough and some like my bunkmate had this mucus-like stuff coming from his chest for days.” Thompson reported symptoms similar to Simon’s, as well as “the loss of taste for several weeks and not being able to breathe out of my nose.”

    But medical staff, who were reportedly conducting temperature checks, dismissed Simon’s and other occupants’ complaints, he said, as merely indications of “a cold or allergy” since “[n]o one seemed to have a fever”—one of the three symptoms listed by the CDC at the time of his TV room confinement. But more symptoms, including ones reported by Butner prisoners, were added to the CDC website on April 17.

    “The temperature check we take every morning validates nothing, proves nothing, and results in no treatment because very few are running temperatures,” claimed Thompson.

    When Simon was first placed in the TV room, corrections staff allegedly informed him and others that the facility had “zero cases of Covid-19 at the camp.” But at FCI Butner Medium I, prisoner Charles Richard Rootes had gone into respiratory failure on March 26, and tested positive for COVID-19 that day—more than two weeks before Simon and others were moved. Rootes died on April 11.

    Alarmingly, Thompson told Filter that he had experienced COVID-19 symptoms before his April bout, as early as January. A federal prison in Louisiana is believed to have been ground zero for the first outbreak of coronavirus in the BOP system. There, prisoner Patrick Jones fell ill on March 19 and died on March 28. Thompson’s January bout reportedly included symptoms like “a severe headache, aching bones and muscles, diahrea [sic], chills, and cold sweats.” But he added, “The second time was even worse.”

    Around April 10, Simon and others housed in the TV room were assigned beds in the bunk area of the dorm. Then on or about April 27, every incarcerated person in Simon’s and Thompson’s housing unit, roughly estimated by Simon to be between 60 and 80 men, was reportedly told they tested positive for COVID-19.

    “We explained that we were reporting symptoms but the medical staff dropped the ball!” Simon pointed out. “It seems that the administration had no clue as to what to do about this pandemic.”

    Despite this, Butner staff are not taking responsibility for their role in the outbreak, Thompson claimed. “The staff here keeps attempting to shift the blame on the inmates,” he wrote. “The medical staff has took the defensive as to saying that we were not disclosing our symptoms and taking aspirin to evade the temperature checks. At that time i became irate and stated me and others complained and informed staff that we were experiencing symptoms and nothing was done.”

    In the face of staff’s alleged incompetence, the prisoners did what they could to survive. “[W]e all knew better and feared we were exposed,” Simon wrote. “All I did for my symptoms was stay in the bunk and drink water until they passed.”

    One prisoner even escaped Butner because of the facility’s handling of the crisis. On April 1, Richard Cephas said he hopped a fence and fled into nearby woods because of a lack of soap, masks, gloves, and space to socially distance.

    “I signed up for a jail sentence, not a death sentence,” he told the News & Observer in an April 16 video interview from an undisclosed location, four days before he was arrested on April 20 for the escape.

    As someone who faced the same facility, Simon understands the reasoning behind Cephas’s escape. “It looks like his fears were confirmed because if he was here now he would be infected!”

    *Name has been changed due to fears of retaliation.

    May 12, 2020 Correction: The length of time for prisoners’ confinement in the day room was four days, not one week, ranging from April 6 to April 10, instead of April 10 to April 17.

    Photograph of prison barbed wire by IzaRut via NeedPix.com/Public Domain

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