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Inmate says he escaped N.C. prison to avoid COVID-19. Now, he seeks leniency.

Inmate says he escaped N.C. prison to avoid COVID-19. Now, he seeks leniency.

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RALEIGH — In April, Richard Cephas escaped from federal prison in Butner and spent nearly three weeks on the run, explaining while still in hiding that he fled to avoid death by coronavirus.

At the time, the Federal Correctional Complex had one of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the country, and Cephas, serving a drug sentence, feared his age and weakened immune system made him especially vulnerable.

"I signed up for a jail sentence, not a death sentence," he told The News & Observer, calling from his undisclosed hideout.

On Tuesday, Cephas will face the consequences for his prison break, and he seeks a lenient sentence in federal court. In a memorandum filed Monday, his attorney argued that the 55-year-old Black man with a medical condition faced an elevated risk while behind bars, helping to explain his mindset.

"While he absolutely recognizes that the threat COVID-19 posed to his health does not excuse his behavior whatsoever, it does provide context for his mental state and motivation at the time of the offense," wrote G. Alan DuBois, federal public defender.

Cephas started serving a 5-year sentence in 2017, convicted in Delaware along with eight other defendants arrested in a federal drug conspiracy investigation nicknamed "Operation Bear Trap." He served time in Kentucky before his transfer to Butner last year.

At the time of his escape on April 1, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons had not reported any COVID-19 cases at Butner. But two weeks later, the agency confirmed that 48 inmates and 28 staff members had tested positive for the virus, according to DuBois' memo. Four inmates had died.

By the beginning of May, the infection total had jumped to the 208 inmates, 13 staff members and six deaths.

By July, the prison had 25 confirmed deaths — more than any other in the country — and the distinction of being the only federal correctional center to have a staffer die from COVID-19.

In his April interview with the News & Observer, Cephas said he was told the prison did not have enough soap to go around — a fact he confirmed through his work as an orderly. Masks and gloves had not been issued, and prison staff had no mask requirement until five days after Cephas fled Butner.

On the day he fled, court documents said, Cephas called his wife and said, "I just want to save my life, that's all."

As of Monday, the Bureau of Prisons reported 1,737 inmates and 778 staffers with positive COVID-19 tests. Of those infected, two staffers and 126 inmates have died, two of the prisoners while on home confinement. The medium-security unit that housed Cephas is now reporting only one positive case and more than 200 who have recovered.

Cephas surrendered to authorities nearly three weeks after his escape, turning himself in at a courthouse in Delaware. Federal authorities have been skeptical that nervousness over COVID-19 prompted his flight.

"Mr. Cephas' decision to escape federal custody is nothing more than an opportunistic move to use the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to cut his prison term short," U.S. Attorney Robert Higdon Jr. said in an April news release."

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