'It was chaos': Former Butner prison inmate describes life inside a coronavirus hot zone

Joel Brown Image
Saturday, April 18, 2020
Former Butner prison inmate describes life inside a coronavirus hot zone
"It was chaos," the former Butner prison inmate said. "The Bureau of Prisons has no clue what to do about COVID-19."

BUTNER, N.C. (WTVD) -- Brian Bronson FaceTime'd with ABC11 from the comfort of his sister's living room in Raleigh after spending nearly 14 years in federal prison on drug charges. He said the past two months at the federal prison in Butner was what scared him the most.

Butner has more COVID-19 cases than any other prison in the federal system: 66 inmates and 25 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 at Butner; four inmates have died; And Bronson said he wondered if he would be next.

"It was chaos," Bronson said. "The Bureau of Prisons has no clue what to do about COVID-19."

The 39-year old confirmed what advocates have been telling ABC11 -- that inmates are not provided masks or gloves and that's it's logistically impossible to social distance. Bronson was housed at Butner's minimum-security work camp where 75 inmates bunk together per dorm -- sleeping three feet apart.

RELATED: Civil rights group files lawsuit to stop the spread of COVID-19 in NC prisons

He says inmates wanted to make their own makeshift masks but were met with pushback from prison staff.

"They tell us, it's altered clothing and if we catch you with any mask, we'll write you a 'shot.' Well, a 'shot' is a disciplinary action form that can hinder you from going home on your release date," he said.

Bronson was already set to be released early. His lawyer had filed a motion to get out under the First Step Act. It's the sweeping criminal justice reform bill signed into law by President Donald Trump in 2018 that slashed prison terms for non-violent drug offenders.

Bronson says his release kept hitting delays; until COVID-19 began spreading through Butner's walls.

"The inmates are so concerned they're gonna catch the coronavirus and it's gonna spread through that prison-like wildfire that they would rather escape and be caught by the U.S. marshal later after coronavirus has died down," Bronson said.

Escaping is exactly what Richard Cephas did. The 54-year old taped a FaceTime interview with the News and Observer from an undisclosed location after he escaped from Butner's work camp two weeks ago - out of what he says was a fear of COVID-19 and the prison's woeful lack of ability to contain it.

Cephas remains on the run.

"We cannot allow our loved ones to be sentenced to a death sentence. They were sentenced to a prison sentence, not a death sentence," said Kimberly Muktarian, Bronson's sister and a vocal advocate in Raleigh for criminal justice reform through her non-profit Save Our Sons.

She is now reunited with her brother and using his case to push for more non-violent offenders to released. She calls it a matter of public health.

"We need to start moving them and making the exodus," Muktarian said. "Many of them have done their time and we need to restore them back to our communities."