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Repairs are far off for federal prison afflicted by mold, flooding

Union presses prison officials to make necessary repairs to ensure the N.C. federal prison is a safe working environment


Federal Bureau of Prisons

By Avi Bajpai
The Charlotte Observer

BUTNER, N.C. — In May 2020, officials at the Butner federal prison complex north of Durham drew up an estimate for the cost of roof repairs at FCI Butner II, one of the complex’s medium-security prisons.

Water had been seeping through the roof in multiple areas, including the commissary and laundry, and continued to leak for several months. By early 2021, roof leaks, some of them described as “severe” by the prison’s environmental and safety compliance department, were being reported throughout the prison. And then earlier this year, employees working at FCI II started to notice what looked like mold — dark-colored, fuzzy spots on the ceilings — growing near areas with water damage.

The union that represents many of FCI II’s employees — around 200 in total — has been pressing prison officials to make necessary repairs to ensure the prison is a safe working environment. But documents obtained by The News & Observer including requests for funding, monthly inspection reports, and correspondence between the union and prison officials, show that more than two-and-half years after the initial estimate was generated, conditions have continued to worsen, and no repair work has taken place.

And now, nearly a year after federal officials allocated money to replace a portion of the roof, the union’s patience is running out.

After the union filed a complaint about the leaks and mold growth with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration in late November, prison officials were given a week to look into the allegations of unsafe working conditions and remedy any that existed. The prison initially asked for an extension of a week or so to make repairs, before requesting an additional six-month extension.

For union leaders and members who have been waiting for repairs to begin since January 2022, that was unacceptable.

“The Agency has acknowledged that the deteriorating conditions have (worsened) significantly over the past two years,” wrote Delshon Harding, president of AFGE Local 408, in a letter Dec. 22 to OSHA officials who are considering the request for an extension until June 2023.

“Yet, OSHA grants the Agency a second extension to gamble (6) six more months with the lives of Federal Law Enforcement officers and individuals affected. One thing that cannot be denied, Management Officials at FCC Butner are knowingly and (willingly) refusing to lower these hazards that can cause or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”

If OSHA approves the prison’s request, Harding wrote, the union is prepared to try every available option to get its concerns addressed, including potentially filing a complaint with the Federal Labor Relations Authority, requesting a congressional investigation, or pursuing legal action.

In an email prior to the union’s letter to OSHA, Eric Lucero, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Labor, told The N&O that OSHA officials were unable to comment since their investigation is ongoing.

‘Significant amount’ of water leaking from roof

Harding has served as president of the local American Federation of Government Employees union since January 2021, but has been a member of the union since 2003. Roof issues at FCI II and FCI I, another medium-security prison in the complex, date back nearly a decade, according to Harding.

At FCI II, as the leaks got worse, prison officials started removing ceiling tiles that had become saturated with water. In their response to OSHA officials in December, prison officials said the tiles that had been removed were not being replaced. According to Harding, that has only made the problem worse.

“We were finding that every time it rains, there was a significant amount of rain water that was leaking in from the roof, into the ceiling, onto tables, work areas, staff offices, documents, equipment, even down to the food service department where the meals are prepared,” Harding said.

In some cases, the union reported in its complaint to OSHA, rainwater leaking into the building caused flooding as well.

Prison officials acknowledged that water can accumulate in certain parts of the building, like the education department. In those situations, “inmate orderly crews are sent to those areas to mop up any accumulated water and to place water attainment devices, such as buckets, in the area to ensure that water does not accumulate,” Warden Lynne B. Kelly reported to OSHA officials.

A separate issue emerged when employees began reporting that water dripping through the roof was pooling inside light fixtures.

In the prison’s request for an additional six-month extension, Kelly wrote that the prison was taking multiple steps to ensure the safety of employees, including putting up cautionary signs near fixtures that should be avoided, and shutting off any electrical components where water was found.

“When water impacts electrical components, such as lights, work orders are promptly submitted to disconnect power to that specific electric component and that power remains disconnected until the roof leak impacting the area is completely resolved,” Kelly wrote. “When roof leaks cause the saturation of building materials, such as ceilings or walls, the (affected) materials are removed and the area is sanitized to inhibit the growth of mold.”

A year later, no repairs have begun

The ongoing roof leak problems date back to at least May 2020, when prison officials estimated the cost of at least some needed repairs at $1.6 million. It was not clear from records how extensive those repairs would have been. In January 2022, more than a year-and-a-half later, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the agency in charge of Butner and other federal prisons, notified Butner officials that they would receive $500,000 to replace the roof above the commissary and laundry.

But a little more than a month later, prison officials went back to the BOP to report that conditions had significantly worsened. It wasn’t just one or two departments of the prison that needed a new roof; now, it was the entire prison’s roof system that had to be replaced.

And $500,000 wasn’t going to cut it. Now, the request from Butner officials was for $7.49 million.

In a Feb. 25 letter to BOP officials, Warden R. Ramos wrote that the prison’s roof had seriously deteriorated, and was allowing “large quantities” of water to pour into the building. In addition to ceiling damage, the leaks had damaged insulation and some equipment as well. Ramos also noted there were concerns of mold growing from moisture.

The leaks may have been contained to certain parts of the building earlier, but they were widespread now. The areas of the prison experiencing leaks, according to Ramos, now included: “Health Services, AW Complex, Visitation, Education, Recreation, Religious Services, Psychology, Vo-Tech, UNICOR, Facilities, FCI 2 Powerhouse and Food Service.”

“The roof system has high amounts of moisture trapped in the insulation boards. This water infiltration should be considered a complete failure of the roofing system for the FCI 2,” Ramos wrote.

Ramos also told BOP officials that the roof damage had reached the point where there were “no maintenance or temporary repairs that can be made to stop the leaks due to the roof membrane deterioration.” Those repairs had already been tried, he said, and had failed since the new materials wouldn’t bind to the water-soaked membrane.

In an email, Scott Taylor, a BOP spokesperson, said BOP and Butner officials take seriously their duty “to protect the individuals entrusted in our custody as well as maintain the safety of correctional staff and the community, as this remains one of the highest priorities for the BOP.”

Since January 2022, an additional $1.4 million — for a total of $1.9 million — has been allocated to FCI II for roof repairs, Taylor said.

Taylor said prison officials recently awarded the $1.9 million in total funds to a roofing contractor to begin replacing the roof over the food service department, as well as the commissary and laundry. But work isn’t expected to start until the spring, Taylor said, when the weather is suitable.

Prison refuses to conduct mold test

In its complaint to OSHA, the union also reported that there were ceiling tiles in the food service department with visible mold growth.

But even though the mold was visible to employees, and prison officials later had areas with possible mold growth treated with chemical sprays, officials hesitated to grant the union’s request for an air quality and mold test to be conducted, to confirm the presence of mold and any airborne toxins.

In August, the union asked two different wardens to conduct the test. Both of those requests were denied. Months later, in late November, prison officials agreed to do a test, but in FCI I. That test showed the presence of mold. The union’s request for FCI II to be checked for mold continued to be denied.

In their response to OSHA, prison officials said they did not find any “mold affected ceiling tiles” in the food service department. Asked why officials have declined to conduct a test in FCI II, despite multiple requests from the union since August, Taylor said the prison “has determined an air quality test is not indicated at this time.”

What happens now?

The next step in this case is for OSHA to determine if it will grant the six-month extension to prison officials, giving them until June to repair roof leaks and prevent water from collecting inside electrical panels or light fixtures. According to Taylor, OSHA gave the union 10 days to review the prison’s request for an extension, which he said was submitted on Dec. 21.

Harding provided OSHA with the union’s response the day after it was notified of the request.

If the extension is granted, Harding said the union is ready to pursue multiple options to try to expedite the process and allow repairs to begin quickly.

“The last thing we want is to be silent on this issue,” Harding said.

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