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35 staff COVID-19 cases, 2 inmate deaths reported at FCI Williamsburg

Updated: Jan. 21, 2021 at 4:15 PM EST
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SALTERS, S.C. (WCSC) - A Lowcountry correctional facility now has one of the highest numbers of confirmed active COVID-19 staff cases among federal prisons around the nation.

Federal Correctional Institution Williamsburg in the Salters area is currently reporting 35 coronavirus cases among employees, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Federal Bureau of Prisons COVID-19 database. Only 10 other federal prisons have more reported active COVID-19 cases among staff.

The Department of Justice is one of the 20 largest employers in Williamsburg County, according to the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce.

The steady increase in reported cases over the last two weeks comes after the BOP’s database indicated a total of eight active COVID-19 cases among staff. The agency says that there have now been two coronavirus-related inmate deaths and 31 active cases among people incarcerated at FCI Williamsburg.

Earlier this month, the president of a union representing FCI Williamsburg employees called for the removal of executive staff, alleging in part that the process of screening individuals entering the complex for potential COVID-19 symptoms was shifted from outside the facility to inside in early December.

“They made some changes on the process of what we were doing ... that allowed COVID to actually walk into the institution,” American Federation of Government Employees’ Local 525 President Stephen Pinckney said at the time. “From there, it spread like wildfire once it got in.”

However, BOP spokesperson Justin Long subsequently said in part that “COVID-19 screening for visitors and staff at FCI Williamsburg has remained outside the secure confines of the institution since its implementation in March 2020.”

Following previous stories about the facility, Live 5 Investigates received numerous calls and emails from relatives of federal prison inmates along with communications from people incarcerated at FCI Williamsburg expressing COVID-19 concerns.

In a call to Live 5 Investigates using the prison’s phone system last week, FCI Williamsburg inmate Josand Farmer stated that he tested positive for the virus and that he wants the facility to allow him to be seen by an outside doctor.

“Right now I’m having issues with my lungs,” Farmer said. “I’ve been given steroids for my lungs and to breathe. I am having erratic heart rates, muscle pains, headaches, [and] things of that nature.”

Williamsburg County Emergency Medical Services Director Judy McCrea told Live 5 Investigates that “WCEMS responded to 22 calls in 2020 to FCI Williamsburg,” noting that “we were not provided any information on COVID-19 on any call.”

On Thursday afternoon, following calls and emails received from people incarcerated inside FCI Williamsburg using the prison’s phone and computer systems, Live 5 Investigates was notified that further communication with these inmates is being blocked “because the Bureau has determined that such communication is detrimental to the security, good order, or discipline of the facility, or might facilitate criminal activity.”

FCI Williamsburg falls within Representative James Clyburn’s district. In a statement to Live 5 Investigates, the congressman said in part that “as a contagious airborne virus, COVID-19 has been especially dangerous to those who live or work in crowded congregate settings, including jails and prisons like FCI Williamsburg.”

Clyburn also called for the implementation of measures proposed in the Heroes Act such as “$620 million for increased testing, PPE, and sanitation at federal prisons to protect people who are incarcerated and prison staff” and “the limited release of some non-violent offenders in order to reduce the spread of the virus by reducing crowding.”

Live 5 Investigates has offered the BOP the opportunity to sit down for an interview, but the agency declined a request in December. Although the BOP responded to questions in writing in December and again earlier this month, the agency has not yet answered new questions about the recent deaths and the increase in reported cases among staff.

If you have a tip for Live 5 Investigates, call 843-402-5678 or send an email to tips@live5news.com.

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