Records obtained from the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) show at least 4,950 people died in its custody over roughly the past decade. Although there are more than 120 federal prisons, a quarter of those deaths occurred in a single place: the Butner Federal Correctional Complex in Butner, N.C., NPR reports. More deaths at Butner are to be expected. The complex includes a federal medical center (FMC), which is essentially a prison hospital. Inmates who need intensive medical care often end up at such a facility, and FMC Butner is the bureau's largest cancer treatment center. More people in BOP custody died of cancer than any other cause from 2009 to 2020.
NPR found numerous accounts of inmates nationwide going without needed medical care. More than a dozen waited months or even years for treatment, including inmates with obviously concerning symptoms: unexplained bleeding, a suspicious lump, intense pain. Many suffered serious consequences. Some did not survive. Too often, sources told NPR, federal prisons fail to treat serious illnesses fast enough. When an ailment like cancer is caught, the BOP often funnels these sick inmates to a place like Butner, where it is assumed they'll receive more specialized treatment. By the time prisoners access more advanced care, it's sometimes too late to do much more than palliative care. What's more, current and former inmates and staff at Butner told NPR the prison has issues of its own, including delays in care and staffing shortages.