June 16, 2021


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A second federal prison in NC has coronavirus cases, and U.S. officials aren’t tracking it

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A second federal correctional facility in North Carolina has a coronavirus outbreak — and it’s one that hasn’t been reflected in the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ infection and death reports.

On Sunday, a public health director in North Carolina confirmed one inmate and at least three staff members have tested positive for the virus at Rivers Correctional Institution near the Hertford County town of Winton. It is a low-security prison for men run by the GEO Group in Boca Raton, Fla.

“They are isolating folks and they are doing an excellent job contact tracing to see who if any were exposed to any potential cases,” said R. Battle Betts, the director for Albemarle Regional Health Services, which covers an eight-county region in the northeast corner of the state.

He said there have been no COVID-related deaths connected to the prison.

Each day, the bureau publishes an updated list reflecting how the coronavirus has impacted roughly 130 facilities. The report shows how many inmates and staff have tested positive and how many have died.

But that list doesn’t include a dozen privately run prisons across the country with a combined capacity for nearly 17,600 inmates.

‘Dereliction of duty’

Sue Allison, a spokeswoman for the bureau, confirmed last week in an email that the bureau’s case tracking does not include the privately run prisons. She did not say why. Efforts to reach bureau officials on Sunday by phone and email were unsuccessful.

Irving Joyner, a law professor for N.C. Central University in Durham, said the lack of reporting out of privately-run federal prisons is another example of governmental officials not taking seriously the health and welfare of inmates in a pandemic.

“This is just another example of dereliction of duty as it relates to the safety of that population that’s incarcerated by our government,” he said.

He said infections in the privately run prisons should be reported by BOP and inmates should receive the same medical attention as the publicly run facilities.

The bureau reports that Rivers has capacity for 1,198 inmates, though the GEO Group reports room for 1,450. It opened in 2001. A person who answered the phone at the prison said no one was available to take questions on Sunday.

The GEO Group has been in the prison business since 1984 and operates nine of the 12 privately run federal prisons. The bureau said on its website that many of the inmates in the private prisons are “sentenced criminal aliens who may be deported upon completion of their sentence.”

No response from GEO Group

The News & Observer emailed the company’s media representatives and called an executive vice president for corporate relations on Sunday but could not get a response. The company’s website has a page dedicated to the actions its prisons have taken regarding the virus, but the site has no information reporting how many staff and inmates have tested positive.

“We will continue to coordinate closely with our government partners and local health agencies to ensure the health and safety of all those in our care and our employees,” the webpage said.

Betts said he did not know when the first positive cases turned up at Rivers. He also said that he couldn’t attest to whether it was only three staff who have tested positive because those only reflect staff who live within his jurisdiction. Test results for staff who live outside of Hertford County might be reported to a different public health director.

The bureau has a corrections complex in Butner, roughly 30 miles north of Raleigh in Granville County. Butner is home to one of the biggest outbreaks among federal prisons.

As of Sunday, the bureau reported 65 inmates and 27 staff as testing positive, and five inmate deaths at Butner.

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