Just north of the Falls Lake reservoir sits the town of Butner in rural Granville County, N.C., about 30 miles north of Raleigh. Tidy brick and siding-wrapped homes line grid-patterned streets dating back to World War II, when it was Camp Butner.
In 2008, Butner residents opposed efforts to add a federal biodefense research center to a cluster of government-owned facilities that dominate the region. Along with the federal prison, there’s a state prison, psychiatric hospital, addiction-treatment center and a facility caring for disabled people.
At the time, Butner residents said they feared lethal pathogens — with no known treatment or vaccine — could escape the facility.
Now, similar fears have been renewed with covid-19 and the prison. As of Wednesday, seven inmates had died. At least 306 of the 4,500 inmates have tested positive, along with 39 staff members who have been infected.
In early April, Pine Grove Missionary Baptist Church introduced social distancing and protective gear to its twice-monthly food bank. As volunteers in masks and gloves carted boxes of pasta, frozen meat and canned goods to cars and trucks of local families, conversation repeatedly turned to their collective anxiety over the prison.
“They were concerned with the possible spread of the virus within the community, considering that many of the [prison] workers live in the community,” said Michelle Ross, who helps run the food bank, about six miles from the prison.
In March, the outbreak crept closer to the Rev. Marcos León of St. Bernadette Catholic Church in Butner.
Three parishioners — two nurses and a doctor working at the prison complex — told him in confidence that they were exposed on the job and had to self-quarantine at home. They were “truly afraid,” León said. “It was the fear they were going to die. Then it was: ‘I feel so bad because of my children. I’m living in a house where I have to be separated from them.’ ”
The church’s prison ministry regularly offered Mass, confession and one-on-one spiritual guidance to inmates until March, when prisons banned visitors.
Butner and Granville County officials say they don’t expect the covid-19 outbreak will alter appreciation for the prison as a local employer offering good-paying jobs. But correctional officers who live in and around Butner say they know some people fear them, said William Boseman, a retired Butner correctional officer and union representative for the officers.
When people see the prison workers in their dark-gray uniforms walking down the street, they cross to the opposite side. In grocery stores, people scoot to the next aisle.
“They are being ostracized,” Boseman said. “When people know you work at this place where there has been an outbreak, they treat you different. They treat you as if you are automatically contagious.”
The first covid-19 death of a federal inmate took place six weeks ago — on March 28 — at a prison in Oakdale, La. As of Friday, six more of the 1,800 inmates had died. There have been 115 cases of covid-19 among the prisoners and 26 among the staff.
In the boot-shaped state of Louisiana, Oakdale sits just above the ankle. About 110 miles west of Baton Rouge, past the flooded rice-field crawfish ponds of the Cajun prairie, a meandering country road lined with towering Southern pines subtly opens into a meticulously planned four-lane highway that drops you into the town of fewer than 8,000 people.
It only takes five minutes to drive from the center of town to the Oakdale Federal Correctional Complex. Along an access road to the complex, a long row of fluorescent pink and white signs with handwritten biblical psalms and motivational quotes flickers in the spring breeze: “Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision.”
Jane Willis and her husband, Greg Willis, are in their mid-50s and have been the pastors at the Christ Church of Oakdale for 15 years. They broke ground on a new church near the prison to house their growing congregation a few months ago, before the pandemic.
As the news broke of the covid-19 outbreak at the prison, Jane Willis felt called to do something for the shift workers driving in and out of the prison complex, past their property each day. So she made signs.
“I saw the workers going back and forth and it broke my heart for them,” she said. “I was thinking of a way we can encourage them as they go to work to know they’re not alone.”
The couple’s son works at the prison, as do 15 members of their congregation. One of them, Aubrey Melder, 53, a correctional officer, said that when he saw the signs on his way to work the first time, his eyes filled with tears. Melder has felt supported by the community, but he has also felt its fear.
“When they look at you, you can tell they are uneasy,” he said, describing the few times he went to the grocery store in his uniform. “It scares them a little bit.”
Corey Trammel, a union president representing the correctional officers, said the community of Oakdale has long supported the prison workers, and he doesn’t blame them for being afraid of contracting the virus.
“I hate it for the community, and I hate it for our employees,” said Trammel. “If our prison would have let people know what was going on and our warden would have protected us and our community, then people would not have to look at us like that.”
In response, the bureau said in a statement: “We do everything we can to maintain open lines of communication with public officials. Our Executive staff are willing to discuss with them everything they are doing to combat this virus.”
Gene Paul, mayor of Oakdale and a lifelong resident, said the outbreak at the prison created chaos and left people in the community panicked. “Everyone is wondering, ‘Am I going to be next?’ ”
Paul said he now is in close contact with the warden, but he wishes the Bureau of Prisons would have handled the crisis better from the beginning. He said buses of newly sentenced inmates were continuing to arrive at the prison until a few weeks ago.
The bureau said that, overall, inmate movement is down 95 percent. However, they are legally obligated to accept new inmates brought by the U.S. Marshals Service. Those inmates are being quarantined for 14 days before entering the general prison population.
Paul estimates that half of the prison staff live in Oakdale and, although many are angry with the bureau, that rage is not directed at the people who work at the Oakdale facility.
In early April, Paul pulled a brown SUV into the Christ Church of Oakdale parking lot for a “Park and Praise” event to boost prison staff morale.
As prison employees zipped by on the access road, Paul and dozens of other Oakdale residents waved and honked their horns. Christian music blared and several people stretched their hands to the sky. A woman waved a sign that read: “Not all Heroes Wear Capes.” The prison workers smiled and waved back.
Miranda Green reported from Lompoc, Calif. Catherine Clabby reported from Butner, N.C. Marie Elizabeth Oliver reported from Oakdale, La.