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NC correctional officer dies from COVID-19

Charlynn Phillips, 51, was a senior officer who had worked at FCC Butner for nearly a decade

By Dan Kane
The News & Observer

BUTNER, N.C. — A correctional officer at the Federal Correctional Complex in Butner, who worked in a low-security prison that is now seeing scores of coronavirus cases, died from the virus Tuesday, according to emails sent to staff.

Charlynn Phillips, 51, a senior officer who had worked at Butner for nearly a decade, lived in Winston-Salem with her son, said her father and a brother-in-law.

“Her death due to COVID is a stark reminder that this pandemic is more than the news stories, emergency lock down plans, or health screenings at the front lobby,” said Tamara Lyn, the warden of the low-security prison at Butner, in an email sent to staff Wednesday morning. “This disease is dangerous.”

The warden said Phillips is a “mother and friend to many,” and leaves behind a son.

An email to staff from the complex’s warden, Thomas Scarantino, said Phillips had worked at Butner since 2010 after working the previous five years at a federal prison in Sumterville, Florida. She tested positive for the virus on May 19 and was hospitalized four days later.

The News & Observer obtained the emails from employees who wished not to be identified.

Butner officials and Bureau of Prisons officials did not respond to requests for information by phone or email, but late in the day Wednesday its website showed the death of a staff member at the prison.

That would make Phillips the first confirmed COVID-19 death of a staff member in the federal prisons. In April, Robin Grubbs, 39, a caseworker at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta, was found to have tested positive after she died, according to news reports. But the bureau has yet to list her death as COVID-related on its website.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last month that the bureau said it was awaiting confirmation through an autopsy report. Her death has raised concerns that the prison had not done enough to protect staff from the virus.

Phillips worked at a prison that in recent weeks has seen a flare of COVID-19 cases. In the last eight days, six inmates there have died of COVID-related complications.

On Monday, Scarantino ordered all inmates at the facility be tested for the virus.

The low-security prison currently has the most active cases, with 367 inmates and six staff. The bureau reported on Wednesday that 45 inmates and six staff there have recovered from the virus. The total number who have tested positive is roughly a third of the 1,170 inmate population.

The complex earlier had big outbreaks at a medium-security prison and an adjacent camp for minimum-security inmates. One of those inmates at the camp fled the prison shortly before the virus hit. He had told the N&O he was vulnerable to the virus and feared dying from it. He later turned himself in and now faces an escape charge.

A formerly closed special housing unit within the low-security facility had been turned into isolation space for inmates who tested positive. That rankled inmates and staff, who feared it would lead to the virus spreading there.

Lyn acknowledged the danger COVID-19 brings for employees in her email.

“I know that each shift is a risk for you and I am grateful for your commitment,” she wrote. “That you take this risk on a daily basis is remarkable.”

Scarantino urged employees reach out to crisis support team members. “I encourage all staff who need to talk to someone, to please talk to someone.”

“This is a very difficult time,” he wrote in the email. “But, we are all here together. Together we are all stronger, and we need to rely on each other and stay close.”

Charlynn’s father, Alexander Phillips, 78, of Hampton, Virginia, said she was a hard worker who had always wanted to be a police officer and was devoted to raising her only child, a son who is now grown.

Her father said he worried about her catching the virus but she didn’t contact him when she came down with it.

“She didn’t want the people on the outside to know about it,” her father said.

He and her brother-in-law said she had been spending much of her time taking care of her older sister, who is in a long-term care facility. She took on the same role when her mother died after a long illness.

“She took over the mother role,” said Manuel Gladden, who lives in Statesville.

He said her death was a shock. “I had just talked to her a few weeks ago and we were laughing and talking, and then I got a call that she died, and I said, ‘Don’t play with me.”’

All told the complex has seen nearly 640 inmate cases and 50 staff cases, the bureau reported Wednesday. Roughly a third of the inmates and most of the staff have recovered, but 15 inmates have died of COVID-related complications.

Eleven inmates have filed a federal lawsuit asking a judge to release more inmates who are vulnerable to the disease to home confinement.


©2020 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)