A 75-year-old food server visibly ill with COVID-19 continued working for days. Empty soap dispensers and no paper towels. A senior staff member spraying a collapsed prisoner with disinfectant before removing his mask, which contained blood and green vomit.
Those are some of the conditions inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution at Fort Dix in Burlington County described living through over the past month, since the first case of the coronavirus was identified in early April. The dangerous conditions prompted the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey to file a lawsuit Monday seeking the immediate, temporary release of all medically fragile individuals.
COVID-19 appears to have started out in Fort Dix with one or two cases but now is spreading more quickly through state prisons; experts call prisons petri dishes because illnesses proliferate easily in close quarters. The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is reporting that 40 inmates and three staff at the Fort Dix minimum security prison, which houses more than 2,900 inmates, have tested positive for COVID-19.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr directed federal prisons to grant home confinement to older, vulnerable inmates. BOP’s website states 1,972 inmates have been placed on home confinement in response to the pandemic, but a bureau spokesman said he would not discuss any details about Fort Dix due to the lawsuit. The ACLU-NJ does not know of any releases from Fort Dix.
‘Speeding toward a public health catastrophe’
“FCI Fort Dix is speeding toward a public health catastrophe,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. “Our clients are unable to take even the most basic precautions to protect themselves against the virus. The government is failing in its obligation to keep people in its custody safe from harm, putting them — and the wider community — at risk.”
The ACLU filed a petition Monday in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey on behalf of four named inmates asking for the release of all those over age 50 and those whose health would put them at greater risk of complications from the virus. ACLU attorneys do not know yet how many people meet those conditions.
No deaths have been reported thus far at Fort Dix or the other two federal facilities in the state — Fairton prison in Cumberland County and a Kintock Group residential re-entry center in Newark — but 40 federal inmates have died across the country. New Jersey’s state prisons and halfway houses reported the deaths of 38 inmates as of Tuesday night, as well as cases of the disease among 568 staff and 211 prisoners. It is believed two corrections officers have also died, though the state Department of Corrections will not confirm that.
Like the state DOC, which had tested only 269 inmates out of more than 18,000 as of Monday night, Fort Dix had until recently only been testing those with severe symptoms and had done little to prevent the spread of the virus, attorneys working with the ACLU contend.
“At a time of unprecedented crisis, the people in Fort Dix face a punishment far worse than confinement: They face the constant fear that they will be the next victim of a virulent pandemic, and that the finite time they were scheduled to serve will ultimately become a death sentence,” said attorney Matthew Stiegler.
In declarations filed with the petition, inmates with medical conditions who contend they meet Barr’s criteria for home confinement described their fears of getting sick and ultimately dying because of the close living conditions and lack of measures to prevent the virus from infecting others.
Social distancing impossible behind bars
“It is physically impossible for nine of us to get six feet apart in this space, as I know we are supposed to be doing now,” stated Troy Wragg, who has epilepsy, hypertension and heart disease, in his declaration. “I frequently run into my bunkmates by accident because the space is so cramped.”
Wragg, who said he has not been receiving his epilepsy medication on a regular basis since the outbreak, shares a 430-square-foot room with eight others, though it can sleep a total of 12. Fifty men share one bathroom with soap dispensers that “run out daily and are often empty.” Typically 30 men use the TV room near his quarters, but now “closer to 100” watch the news daily to get updates on the pandemic. They are eating in their rooms but all walk together to the dining hall to get their food.
“We began receiving one mask per week in mid-April, but I have not received any gloves,” Wragg continued. “When the elastic band on my mask snapped last week, I was told I could not get a new one … We have virtually no cleaning supplies,” including hand sanitizer or paper towels.
Michael Scronic, who is in the so-called camp section of the prison, described witnessing inmates working for days while visibly ill, collapsing and facing delays in getting medical treatment.
“On April 20, an inmate collapsed as a nurse and senior staff member walked through the camp during temperature check,” Scronic stated in his declaration. “The senior staff member sprayed the fallen inmate with disinfectant, his whole body and then his head. An inmate yelled, ‘What are you doing? He needs help!’ The senior staff member responded, ‘I’m disinfecting him first.’ The nurse took off the inmate’s mask, and it had blood and green vomit in it. The senior staff member sprayed the inmate’s bed and pillow afterward. Eventually, I yelled, ‘Get him out of here. He needs help now!’ The nurse asked the officers for a stretcher. They came back with a wheelchair and he was eventually rolled to the camp’s medical office. I heard he left medical 20 minutes later with an IV in his arm.”
Justin Long, a spokesman for the BOP, declined to answer any questions about Fort Dix due to the lawsuit. He more generally described actions taken by federal prisons in stages over the past two months to halt the spread of the illness that contradict what the Fort Dix inmates have described. For instance, he said inmates are limited in their access to telephones and those who are symptomatic are not given any work assignments.
“The BOP is carefully monitoring the spread of the COVID-19 virus,” he said. “As with any type of emergency situation, we carefully assess how to best ensure the safety of staff, inmates and the public. All of our facilities are implementing the BOP’s guidance on mitigating the spread of COVID-19.”
No way to keep coronavirus out
The experiences of New Jersey’s prisons in trying to keep the coronavirus out and then stop its spread show how difficult that has been. Early on, the DOC closed prisons to visitors — though staff and others’ movements in and out of the facilities likely introduced it. Later, the prisons limited inmates’ group activities and movements, but by then COVID-19 was already spreading.
David Ortiz, the Fort Dix warden, acknowledged in an April 11 notice to inmates — just days after the first prisoner had tested positive — that “social distancing is not possible in this environment,” according to Scronic’s declaration.
“Insufficient testing and preventative measures inside FCI Fort Dix demonstrate the insufficiency of the federal government’s response to a global pandemic that will come at much too high a cost,” said Jim Davy, a civil rights attorney working with ACLU-NJ. “Since it cannot protect the people inside its facilities, the government should reduce the prison population as quickly as possible, for their safety, the safety of its staff and surrounding communities.”
Many states have taken steps to release at least some inmates and some states — notably North Carolina, Washington and Iowa — have released hundreds from prisons. Still, the competing interests of inmate health and public safety have complicated releases elsewhere, including in New Jersey.
Nearly four weeks after Gov. Phil Murphy ordered the medical furloughing of some state prison inmates, the DOC reports having placed 67 individuals on emergency medical-home confinement. More than 1,800 have been deemed eligible due to age, medical conditions, recent denial of parole or nearing the end of a sentence and, to date, 126 have been approved for release, according to a DOC spokeswoman.