An inmate who fled a federal prison camp in Butner and remains on the loose told The News & Observer on Thursday that he escaped because he feared death from coronavirus.
“I take ownership of having to serve my time,” said Richard R. Cephas, 54, who had been at the Federal Correctional Complex serving time on a drug conviction. “I signed up for a jail sentence, not a death sentence.”
Cephas contacted the N&O on Thursday morning, leading to interviews by phone and FaceTime. He didn’t reveal where he was — but he said he wants to turn himself in. He contacted the N&O, he said, to tell the public about the issues he saw at Butner and why he needed to flee.
Cephas fled Butner two weeks ago after the prison complex reported nine inmates and one employee had tested positive for the virus. Since then, those numbers have surged dramatically. The Federal Bureau of Prisons on Thursday reported 66 inmates and 25 staff had tested positive at Butner, one of the worst outbreaks in the federal system.
The bureau reported Butner’s first inmate death tied to the virus on Sunday, and has announced three other deaths since then. All had other health issues contributing to their deaths.
Cephas said he has neutropenia, a medical condition that makes him high risk for contracting the virus because his body struggles to make enough white blood cells that combat infections. His attorney, Bill Rhodunda of Wilmington, Del., confirmed in a phone interview that Cephas has the condition.
Prison officials first reported a positive test at Butner on March 26. Since then, as the numbers grew, Cephas said he grew more fearful for his life. He said he sought early release but said the staff at Butner had not responded to his requests.
Making matters worse, he said, was the way the prison handled the outbreak. He said he works as an orderly at the prison camp, so he was acutely aware of a lack of soap. A staffer told him there wasn’t enough to go around, he said, and inmates were urged to use soap they had purchased.
Masks and gloves also hadn’t been issued, he said, and inmates couldn’t socially distance themselves in the confined space. A directive issuing masks for inmates and requiring staff to wear masks didn’t come until five days after he fled the prison, according to an email sent by the facility’s warden and provided to the N&O by an employee. The employee asked not to be identified for fear it could affect their employment.
Families of other inmates have also contacted the N&O in recent days to complain about a lack of soap and other unsanitary conditions.
Bureau of Prisons officials could not be reached after four phone calls by The N&O on Thursday afternoon.
Cephas was one of nine people from Delaware arrested as part of an investigation prosecutors called “Operation Bear Trap.” Prosecutors said in a news release at the time that it involved two different drug conspiracies with overlapping participants, one to sell methamphetamine brought in from Mexico and one to traffic cocaine.
This is a man willing to trade additional time as a federal prisoner in order to save his life. I don't see how prosecutors don't tack on years for the escape, but if he's willing to turn himself in safely and serve home confinement, I think as a federal prosecutor I'd be willing to take the deal.
Of course, this is the Barr "Justice" Department, which means they'll probably pick up the reporter and stick him in a room for a day or two in order to get him to talk, pushing charges of aiding and abetting an escaped federal inmate.
Oh, and I'm sure the cops will kill Cephas on sight, that goes without saying, as he's black and an escaped inmate.
I hope that Cephas's escape will bring attention and help to the inmates still in Butner. Sadly, with this administration, I don't think anything will change, and a whole lot of people are going to die as a result.