Inmates at Butner Federal Prison have filed a lawsuit in federal district court demanding the facility release its most vulnerable prisoners, accusing prison leaders of “deliberate indifference” that has led to a failure to implement safeguards against COVID-19 and resulted in an outbreak of hundreds of cases and at least eight deaths.

The habeas corpus lawsuit, filed Tuesday by the North Carolina ACLU on behalf of 11 inmates with underlying conditions, is one of many throughout the country calling for the release of prisoners. 

Deaths from the virus in the U.S. neared 100,000 this weekend, with 766 reported in North Carolina as of Monday. Prisons have been hit especially hard, the lawsuit alleges, with more than 25,000 inmates and 7,000 staff members testing positive nationwide. 

Social distancing has proven the best means of slowing the virus’s spread, but at Butner it is nearly impossible even in the best of conditions, the lawsuit says.

“Overcrowding worsens these dangerous conditions,” the lawsuit says. “At Butner, where 4,438 men are crammed into a space meant for no more than 3,998, whatever chance these men have to limit their exposure is even lower than it would be if the prison were even at maximum planned capacity.”

Butner also has some of the federal prison system’s most medically vulnerable inmates at a low-security prison; hundreds of men suffer from chronic conditions, the lawsuit continues, making them more susceptible to experiencing the virus’s most severe symptoms. The eight Butner inmates who died all had underlying conditions, the lawsuit says.

Prison leaders failed to properly address the situation by previously rejecting motions for compassionate release while failing to implement social distancing or proper hygiene policies

The sick are detained alongside those who are not sick, sometimes sleeping in busy hallways. The prison’s leaders “have shown deliberate indifference to the severe and obvious risk of rampant infection and death that COVID-19 poses to people incarcerated at Butner,” in violation of the Eighth Amendment, which protects against cruel and unusual punishment, the lawsuit argues. 

The only way to ensure the safety of prisoners is to reduce the Butner’s population, the lawsuit says: “The situation is urgent. Without immediate action by this Court, more people will become infected and more people will die.”

The lawsuit calls for the immediate release of prisoners, including but not limited to the medically vulnerable, to reduce the population. In addition, it asks to arrange the prison to make it possible to isolate those who are sick while also increasing testing on the general population. 

Read the lawsuit below:

Butner Lawsuit by Leigh Tauss on Scribd

Contact Raleigh news editor Leigh Tauss at

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