A federal judge on Friday denied an effort by attorneys who had sought the immediate temporary release of all medically fragile prisoners from the Federal Correctional Institution at Fort Dix to protect them from COVID-19, ruling that inmates have other options for seeking release for their specific circumstances.
Despite some alarming reports of conditions within the prison relayed in court papers, including a collapsed prisoner who had vomited into his mask being sprayed with disinfectant before staff would help him, U.S. District Court Judge Renee Marie Bumb rejected assertions by ACLU-NJ and other attorneys that conditions are so bad that she should take extraordinary steps there.
“The record simply does not support that the Respondents have been deliberately indifferent to the inmates’ concerns,” Bumb wrote in referring to the Fort Dix administration. “In the end, the ugly picture Petitioners paint of FCI Fort Dix is not really a fair one.”
The ACLU filed a petition earlier this month 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 coronavirus. ACLU attorneys said they did not know how many people meet those criteria and were seeking class-action status for them.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office had responded by asserting that the Federal Bureau of Prisons has taken “extraordinary efforts to safeguard its inmates” and complained that ACLU was demanding “relief on a scale never granted by any district court in this Circuit.”
Judge: Prisoners have other options
Bumb granted the U.S. attorney’s request to dismiss the inmates’ suit, writing that the bar for the action the inmates sought was very high and none of the inmates’ allegations prove that prison officials “have been deliberately indifferent to the inmates’ risk of contracting COVID-19.” She also wrote that inmates with underlying medical conditions do have other avenues through which they can individually seek release. According to the decision, Fort Dix in Burlington County, which has about 3,000 inmates, has approved transfer to home confinement for 56 individuals, with 21 of these already released. Another 10 have been released after petitioning the courts.
Attorneys representing the inmates said they were disappointed and continue to maintain that the actions Fort Dix is taking — which include increased cleaning, limiting inmates’ movements, confining those who test positive in one building and providing masks — are ineffective.
“As the pandemic continues to spread inside prisons, FCI Fort Dix is imperiling the lives of not only our clients and other prisoners, but also those of staff members, their families, and the wider community,” said Jim Davy, a lawyer who works primarily on civil rights issues. “We know those lives remain at risk and are considering next steps in light of the Court’s ruling.”
Bumb left the door open for the inmates to return to her if they can prove their assertion that the prison is not addressing the medical needs of prisoners, something the prison has denied. Tess Borden, an ACLU-NJ staff attorney, said her office would continue to work with its clients and others “to combat the spread of this deadly virus in prisons.”
Similar to the ACLU-NJ and state public defender’s plea for a simpler and more expansive release of at-risk state prison inmates, the suit against Fort Dix asserted that social distancing is the best way to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus and that inmate releases would better allow that to happen while at the same time protecting medically fragile individuals.
Number of cases unclear
The number of cases of infection among prisoners at Fort Dix, a sprawling minimum-security prison located on the grounds of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, is unclear. The decision states 58 inmates have tested positive, while the federal prisons bureau website indicates 22 are currently infected and 26 have recovered, with five staff also now recovered. Justin Long, a spokesman for the bureau, declined to clarify the discrepancy, saying the bureau does not comment “on matters subject to legal proceedings.”
No deaths have been reported 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 64 federal inmates have died across the country. The federal prisons bureau reported that Fairton had one guard with COVID-19 and another recovered, and three inmates at Kintock who tested positive.
In addition to living in quarters too close to allow for social distancing, inmates contended in their suit that 50 men share a bathroom with soap dispensers that run out daily, as many as 100 watch television together to get daily updates on the pandemic and that they have virtually no cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer or paper towels.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr directed federal prisons to grant home confinement to older, vulnerable inmates. The prisons bureau’s website states 3,392 inmates, including 56 in New Jersey, have been placed on home confinement.