I’ve been friends with D’Erikah since the summer before ninth grade. My family had recently moved east from Charlotte to Duplin County. I had just made the cheerleading team, and we were in a stunt group together. She was the base, which meant that I trusted her with my life — or, at least, my spinal cord. Our friendship grew that summer, out on the grass in front of our small school in the sweltering Southern heat, but never did I think it would inspire me to fight for awareness around the deadly conditions in FMC Butner, a North Carolina prison failing the people incarcerated there during a pandemic.
After high school, D’Erikah and I split up. I went on to UNC-Chapel Hill and D’Erikah went to East Carolina University, two hours away. Today, I live in Chapel Hill while she has since moved to Charlotte, where I grew up. For the past four years, we’ve stayed connected through group FaceTime with our other two friends at least twice a week. We get into it about classes, relationships, politics, emotions — really anything. In the past few months, we’ve talked a lot about the stresses of graduating in the midst of a global pandemic.
However, April 17 was different. That evening, I hopped on FaceTime like so many other nights, but this time, my friend’s tone was more urgent. “I need your help,” D’Erikah said, desperation in her voice.
Her uncle had reached out to her about the COVID-19 outbreak at the Federal Medical Center, Butner, in Durham County. FMC Butner, as it’s called for short, is a correctional facility for incarcerated men with special health concerns.
Compared to previous conversations, this one brought a sense of distress. D’Erikah’s uncle spent the last seven years confined in FMC Butner, serving over 70% of his sentence. She was worried that he wouldn’t make it through the last quarter.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety announced it was, “actively monitoring the health conditions of the offender population, with a specific focus on frequent cleaning, good hygiene practices, medical triage, appropriate testing, and tracking.” However, FMC Butner has failed to protect too many incarcerated people from COVID-19.
To start, incarcerated people are being confined three to a cell. While the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that we all maintain at least a distance of 6 feet, FMC Butner’s cells are approximately 10 feet by 12 feet, with bunks and lockers taking up a significant portion of each, making it impossible to properly distance.
Additionally, people incarcerated at FMC Butner are expected to continue working on-site without the proper sanitation equipment needed to clean their supplies. D’Erikah’s uncle says prison officials have explicitly stated that sanitation equipment is “not a priority” for incarcerated workers. He’s witnessed retaliation from FMC Butner’s safety department when inmates ask for chemical disinfectants and mops. Meanwhile, these same workers are only getting paid 10 to 20 cents per hour — well below the $2 they need to pay for a “sick slip” to get their temperatures checked.
When incarcerated people have expressed concerns about contracting the virus, the uncle says, FMC Butner has threatened them with solitary confinement, also known as “the hole.” There’s widespread research showing that the isolation of solitary can cause a number of impairments, including hallucination, panic attacks, paranoia, sensitivity to external stimuli, and problems with concentration and memory. In super-maximum prisons, 91% of those in solitary suffered from anxiety, 80% from lethargy and headaches, and 77% from chronic depression.
Making matters worse, FMC Butner cut phone time for inmates and blocked email addresses, the uncle says, limiting opportunities to connect with the outside world for help.
On March 26, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons released a statement on COVID-19 noting that 10 incarcerated people tested positive out of 1,460,000 in the federal system, and eight out of the 36,000 people on staff. “We believe that the low number of cases to this point, in a system this large, is a testament to our effective planning and execution to-date,” they wrote.
In April, the state had only tested 2% of incarcerated people for COVID-19 — an alarming percentage considering that the vast majority of incarcerated people nationwide are housed in state prisons. In Neuse Correctional Institution in Goldsboro, a whopping 465 inmates, more than half the population, had tested positive by then. One woman reported that her 57-year-old husband, who had less than six months left in his sentence, was still being confined in a multiple-occupancy cell.
By June, 657 incarcerated people and staff had active cases within Neuse. As of July 20, more than 4,000 people confined in the federal system had tested positive, and 97 had died. This includes 25 deaths at FMC Butner alone, making it the deadliest outbreak among federal prisons in the country. Meanwhile, D’Erikah’s uncle joined the ranks of those thrown into solitary confinement for speaking out. The situation is dire.
The federal government has taken steps to address prisoner health and safety issues. The CARES Act, passed in March, includes measures supporting home confinements and early releases for certain categories of people, including those who are pregnant, who are at least 65 and have a 2020 release date, or who are as young as 50 and have underlying health issues. The CARES Act also orders federal facilities to provide incarcerated people with free telephone and video communication. Moreover, the CARES Act includes provisions that aid with the legal costs of vulnerable citizens.
Still, at FMC Butner, there are concerns that the facility is not following the proper protocol. In May, incarcerated people at FMC Butner filed a class-action lawsuit pushing the prison to release its most vulnerable inmates and comply with CDC guidelines.
Our systems continue to fail Black and brown people. Black people are disproportionately incarcerated and disproportionately die from COVID-19. Our communities are suffering. These are our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends within these institutions.
Just recently, D’Erikah and I were talking about graduation. Now, we’re trying to save the life of a loved one. In a time when people are staying home to protect themselves and one another from getting sick, Black people are also forced to fight an oppressive system that is killing us. From marching for the lives of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd to advocating for our incarcerated loved ones amidst a global pandemic, when will Black lives matter? Prisons, just like police interactions, should not come with a death sentence.
Savannah Baker is a recent graduate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She’s served as co-chair of Criminal Justice Awareness and Action at UNC, which is dedicated to raising awareness about systemic injustice within the criminal justice system; and co-president of B4 (Building Bonds Breaking B.A.R.S), a volunteer group that offers mutual support at detention centers in North Carolina and that is run through the Sonja Hayes Stone Center. She now serves on the board of EmancipateNC.
This story was produced in partnership with Just Media, a new, national hub for grassroots storytelling on the politics of policing and justice reform.