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Tornado Rips Through South Carolina, Displacing Federal Prisoners

A deadly tornado ripping through South Carolina on April 13, 2020 has forced the federal Bureau of Prisons to start moving hundreds of prisoners from FCI Estill.

The prison, located west of Charleston in Hampton County, took a direct hit from the tornado, an EF-4 on the Enhanced Fujita scale with wind speeds of 175 mph. As one resident noted on Facebook: “Razor wire was hanging in the trees miles away from the prison.”

Scott Taylor, a BOP spokesman, stated, “As a result of the extensive damage to the facility and infrastructure, we will begin relocating inmates from FCI Estill.” Taylor said no prisoners or staff were injured.

FCI Estill, at the time the tornado hit, housed 956 prisoners. The prisoners were moved to the maximum-security prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. The prisoners are expected to be in Lewisburg 18 to 24 months.

Lewisburg was recently expected to be a northeastern regional quarantine unit during the coronavirus pandemic. Those plans were scrapped when the beds were needed for the Estill prisoners.

Shane Fausey, president of the Council of Prison Locals 33, said staffing will be a serious problem. The prison recently had 30 staff members moved to prisons in New York and Ohio to help deal with problems related to COVID-19.

Andy Kline, Local 148 president, said he has never seen such a large-scale prisoner movement into one prison. “I’m concerned about the virus,” he added.

Kline is not the only person with concerns. Jodi Renfro, the mother of one of the Estill prisoners, said, “These are medium-low inmates.” She was worried that her son was being transferred to a notorious maximum-security prison known for extreme violence in the past.

Yesenia Sanchez, a girlfriend of one of the Estill prisoners, said she has tried to reach BOP officials at all levels without success. She commented that this is a big deal for families and prisoners, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic. Prisoners at Estill had already had visits canceled at the prison prior to the tornado as a result of COVID-19. Now they are hundreds of miles away from loved ones.