The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Frail inmates could be sent home to prevent the spread of covid-19. Instead, some are dying in federal prisons.

The Federal Correctional Complex, Butner is shown in this 2015 aerial photo in Butner, N.C.
The Federal Correctional Complex, Butner is shown in this 2015 aerial photo in Butner, N.C. (Gerry Broome/AP)

Andre Williams Jr. hit the road early one day in April to pick up his father from federal prison. He had a 13-hour drive from Baton Rouge to Butner, N.C., where his father, a 78-year-old serial bank robber with severe coronary disease, had been approved for compassionate release.

Andre Williams Sr. had served 16 years. The judge who sentenced him ordered him out, saying he didn’t deserve to die behind bars.

Williams Jr. was driving when his mother called. He could turn around. His father was dead — a victim of the coronavirus. “I feel like it could have been avoided,” Williams Jr. said of his father’s death. “They got him in an unhealthy environment.”

As the coronavirus has spread through federal prisons, Williams Sr. is not the only person to die waiting to learn when or if he would be freed. The Bureau of Prisons said 25 people have died in its custody this year while their requests for sentence reduction were under consideration, including 18 since March 1, around the time the coronavirus began spreading in U.S. communities.

To fight the virus’s spread, Attorney General William P. Barr in late March directed federal prisons to send vulnerable, low-risk inmates to home confinement or release them outright. According to the Bureau of Prisons website, about 7,000 inmates, or about 4 percent of its 160,000-inmate population, have been sent home since.

But the bureau has largely disregarded one method it has to release inmates, a procedure that seems ideally suited for the coronavirus pandemic — compassionate release. Part of bipartisan legislation passed in 2018, compassionate release was intended as a way to swiftly grant release to inmates who are terminally ill or for other “extraordinary and compelling reasons.” Yet even as it has released some prisoners to home confinement, the bureau routinely has opposed or not responded to requests for compassionate release.

In 50 cases decided in early July, for example, the bureau opposed 38 compassionate release requests or did not respond to them, and the requests were denied by courts, which make the final decision. The bureau also opposed 10 releases that courts eventually granted. Only in two cases did the agency agree to a release before a court intervened.

In an email, bureau spokesman Justin Long said the bureau “has been proceeding expeditiously” on compassionate release requests.

Interviews with inmates recently released or still incarcerated at Butner show the bureau has not been able to stop the virus’s spread there. Williams is one of 25 men at Butner who died since March after contracting the coronavirus, making it the federal prison with the most covid-19 deaths.

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The ACLU and other advocates for prisoners sued the bureau in May, seeking the release of as many Butner inmates as needed to allow for social distancing. “What’s alarming in all these institutional cases is how slow and sluggish the system has been to respond,” said Jonathan Smith of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee, which joined the lawsuit.

In a court document dated June 11, bureau officials said that since Barr’s guidance was released, 42 inmates at Butner — about 1 percent of the prison’s population — were transferred to home confinement, and nine were transferred to halfway houses. The number of compassionate releases from Butner was not readily available, the bureau said.

Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.), who represents a neighboring congressional district, said he wanted more inmates released from Butner and would use legislation that funds the Justice Department to try to get people out.

“This is clearly part of a larger pattern of malfeasance on the part of the Trump administration,” he said. “It’s one area where they’ve simply not done the job.”

Appeal rejected

John Dailey, a podiatrist convicted of Medicare fraud and a named plaintiff in the ACLU suit, was serving a 27-month sentence when he died in prison on July 3 at age 62 after contracting covid-19.

Carter Law, Dailey’s attorney, said her client suffered from lymphoma and sought compassionate release soon after he arrived at Butner last year. After his request was denied, he appealed directly to Michael Carvajal, the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, in March — but the appeal was automatically rejected because it contained more than one page of addendums, which is beyond the bureau’s limit.

Dailey then appealed directly to the federal court for Missouri’s Eastern District, where he was sentenced. On April 20, the court denied his request partly because it wanted to give the bureau another chance to weigh in on his case.

Following the court’s direction, Law said she refiled a compassionate release request with one page of addendums to Carvajal. She never received a reply.

“This was a death that did not need to happen,” Law said. “It was a white-collar crime. He was undeniably incredibly ill. There was no reason in this world for him to be in the Bureau of Prisons. It was just heartbreaking.”

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Less than a month before Dailey’s death, another federal judge also refused to intervene at Butner. Louise W. Flanagan of North Carolina’s Eastern District, where the ACLU’s suit was filed, declined to issue a temporary restraining order that could have forced the release of sick inmates.

In an opinion dated June 11, Flanagan said “the public interest is served by preventing unnecessary illness and death and slowing the spread of the virus,” but thought it inappropriate to intervene because the Bureau of Prisons “has made reasonable efforts to achieve those goals.”

Despite Flanagan’s opinion, some recently released from Butner say there is good reason to worry.

John Krokos, 46, a Canadian citizen who was part of an international drug-trafficking ring, was sentenced by a California federal court to more than 13 years in prison in 2015.

A cancer patient, he left Butner in May after winning compassionate release. After spending a week quarantined in a hotel at the Raleigh-Durham airport with flu-like symptoms, he self-deported home, as the terms of his release required. In Canada, he tested positive for the coronavirus and has since recovered.

“Things were getting a little chaotic there,” he said of Butner in a telephone interview. “We were being told there wasn’t covid when we knew there was.”

In an email, BOP spokesman Long said the bureau “is carefully monitoring the spread of the COVID-19 virus.”

“All of our facilities, including FCC Butner, are implementing the BOP’s guidance on mitigating the spread of COVID-19,” the email said. “In response to COVID-19, the BOP has instituted a comprehensive management approach that includes screening, testing, appropriate treatment, prevention, education, and infection control measures.”  

Court documents in Krokos’s case show the bureau’s reluctance to release him as the facility’s covid-19 death toll mounted.

When Krokos, suffering from renal cell carcinoma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, first applied for compassionate release last year, the bureau opposed it, saying the illnesses were not terminal and treatment had been successful.

When he renewed his request in April, the government suggested that his release be delayed to give Butner a chance to implement Barr’s guidance on home confinement. But there was a hitch — Krokos, a foreign national, wasn’t eligible for home confinement.

The delays continued into May. Court documents show the bureau was eventually willing to release Krokos to ICE, but needed a court order. While they waited for it, Krokos remained in the general prison population. He wasn’t released until May 18.

Robert Michael Evans, 44, was serving a life sentence for drug and weapons offenses at a federal prison in Alabama last year when he first applied for compassionate release.

Partly paralyzed in a car accident in 2003, he used a wheelchair years before his conviction in 2008. Though Evans had cardiovascular disease, diabetes and pressure sores, among other medical conditions, the bureau fought to keep him in prison.

A federal court in Alabama did not rule on Evans’s compassionate release in December partly because he was due for a transfer to Butner, where he could presumably get better care.

Months later, Evans remains at the prison hospital in Butner. His motion for compassionate release was denied in July, and he’s been transferred from a prison with fewer than 10 infections to one with hundreds, according to federal data.

In telephone interviews, Evans said he was scared. He is in a cell by himself, but his medical conditions mean he must emerge to interact with staff.

He suspects staff may reuse protective gear after interacting with patients. His own protective gear is limited: a cloth mask that he must wash and reuse.

“The nurse was telling me yesterday: If I can help it, don’t come out of the room,” he said. “There is coronavirus on our floor. I’m trying to stay safe.”

'My health is real bad'

Butner, with two medium-security facilities, a low-security facility and a hospital, should be an obvious place to find prisoners suitable to leave, according to Maria Morris, the ACLU National Prison Project senior staff attorney involved in the Butner suit. Even with many inmates in poor health, she said, “They have released very few people.” 

Meanwhile, more Butner inmates are dying of covid-19. Not all are likely to inspire sympathy.

Norman F. Grimm Jr., a 66-year-old man with preexisting conditions, was serving a 25-year sentence for production of child pornography when he died on June 24 at a hospital near Butner after contracting the coronavirus.

Others have different stories. In his motion for compassionate release in March, Williams, convicted of bank robbery nine times, wrote: “I am very sorry.”

“I understand now that I put everyone’s lives in danger,” he wrote. “I didn’t mean to do that, but sometimes we don’t realize what our actions will effect. I have deep regrets for my actions.”

Williams said he “had found a better way to live,” turning to God and focusing on his children. He had been separated from them for 16 years.

In an order dated April 1, M. Casey Rodgers, a federal judge in Florida, agreed that 16 years was a “significant sanction,” and said Williams’s prison record was “exemplary.”

“The record indicates that Williams has received excellent care from the BOP to date,” Rodgers wrote. “However, a reduction of Williams’ sentence will enable him to seek, from the doctors and hospitals of his choice, what may be better medical care than the BOP is obligated or able to provide, particularly given the very real threat that COVID19 poses in the institutional environment.”

Williams never was able to seek that treatment.

“My health is real bad and it will never get better,” he wrote in a letter filed with the court on March 19. “I want nothing but to go home and make a family. I love my wife and two sons. I will do nothing that will take us apart again!”

Twenty-four days later, he died in prison.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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