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Coronavirus Is Ready To Explode Inside Fort Dix Federal Prison, Incarcerated People and Their Loved Ones Say

One prisoner says a man collapsed while waiting for a temperature check and was sprayed down with disinfectant as he lay on the floor. BOP denied it.

(Photo by Busà Photography via Getty Images)

Inside a federal low-security prison in New Jersey, a man collapsed during temperature checks. As he lay on the floor, a staff member sprayed him with disinfectant, another incarcerated man who witnessed it said.

“They took close to 15 minutes getting him out,” he wrote in a message to his sister on April 20. “A senior staff member sprayed his body with disinfectant and then sprayed his pillow and his bed, all while the guy lay there on the floor.” His sister shared the message with The Appeal. The Appeal is not naming them out of concern for his safety.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons denied the man was sprayed down. “While we do not share medical information about a specific inmate or discuss an inmate’s conditions of confinement, we can share that the individual in the first incident you referenced was under medical care and at no time was he sprayed with lysol by staff,” a spokesperson said in an email. “Staff are making regular rounds and conducting wellness checks throughout housing units; if inmates report feeling ill, they are to be immediately screened by health services personnel.”

But three people inside and four people with loved ones inside described potentially life-threatening conditions inside the facility. They say prisoners are unable to socially distance, lack sufficient protective equipment, and are not receiving adequate medical care. Public health experts say handwashing and social distancing are necessary to help curb transmission of the novel coronavirus, and that those with certain pre-existing conditions are more vulnerable to complications. 

“The picture that’s emerging of conditions at Fort Dix is really alarming and likely deadly,” said Tess Borden, a staff attorney with the ACLU of New Jersey. “They are housed in conditions that make the spread of the virus exponential and therefore exponentially dangerous.”

At Fort Dix, as of April 23, 12 prisoners and four staff members are confirmed to have COVID-19. Civil rights attorneys warn that many more may be infected, but have not been tested. 

“The only inmates that are being tested to see whether they have COVID are the ones who are being carried out on stretchers,” according to appellate attorney Matthew Stiegler, who has received reports on prison conditions from prisoners and their loved ones. 

“Getting testing available to inmates and guards is critical to managing what seems to be an outbreak there,” he said. 

In a statement emailed to The Appeal, Federal Bureau of Prisons spokesperson Justin Long wrote that, “The BOP has instituted a comprehensive management approach that includes screening, testing, appropriate treatment, prevention, education, and infection control measures.”

But the bureau’s actions have not sufficiently mitigated the risk of rapid and widespread transmission, prisoners and their family members say. At Fort Dix, they have not been permitted to go outside, “which is an obvious space for us to spread out and distance ourselves,” the prisoner who witnessed the disinfectant incident wrote to The Appeal.

“The day to day is absolutely nothing,” he wrote. “No visitation. No programs. No recreation. It is a warehouse and nothing more. It’s been 3 weeks like this and it’s impossible to see a point where it changes back as we can’t get virus free.”

He lives in a dormitory with more than a hundred other men, he wrote. They share eight showers, ten toilets, and six urinals, he said. Twice a day, prisoners stand at their bunks to have a staff member take their temperatures with a thermometer placed on their head. “The person does this from inmate to inmate,” he wrote. “Not cleaned at all.” 

“It is very concerning how our health has been compromised,” he wrote, “but the silver lining is that we are all becoming closer as friends and support as we all try to get through this experience.”

The Bureau of Prisons spokesperson wrote to The Appeal that, “We consulted institution staff who confirmed that non-contact thermometers are used for inmate temperature checks.” The Appeal shared this response with the incarcerated person who said thermometers were placed on their heads and not cleaned between uses. He confirmed that they are non-contact thermometers, and wrote that when first used, officers were holding them “very very close.” But now, he wrote, “it’s much farther away.”

“I and others were touched quite frequently before but lately they are doing a better job of keeping it far enough away so neither of us messes up and touches the thermometer,” he wrote. “The medical staff were making physical contact with the thermometers. It may not have been every time, but I will state 100% that it was more often than not. I remember every time. The last week, definitely the last few days, there is a separation. I will continue to monitor if that changes.”

The Appeal contacted New Jersey Senators Robert Menendez and Cory Booker to comment on the reports of unsafe conditions at Fort Dix. Menendez’s office did not respond. 

In an emailed statement Booker said, “For thousands of people behind bars, contracting COVID-19 is tantamount to a death sentence. Those in prison and jail tend to have much higher rates of underlying health issues than the general public, and the conditions of confinement make social distancing virtually impossible. We have an obligation to do everything we can to prevent the spread of this deadly disease, and that includes protecting the health and safety of incarcerated people and BOP employees.”

The best way to protect prisoners from COVID-19 is to release as many as possible, as expeditiously as possible, said Borden, the ACLU attorney. But that does not appear to be happening. 

U.S. Attorney General William Barr released two memos, one in March and another in April, that direct the Bureau of Prisons to prioritize the use of home confinement for vulnerable prisoners. Bureau officials can consider a number of criteria, including underlying health conditions or age, as well as their prison record, according to his March 23 memo

“Given the speed with which this disease has spread through the general public, it is clear that time is of the essence,” Barr wrote in his April 3 memo

As of April 23, 1,440 people were placed on home confinement, according to the bureau website. More than 140,000 people are incarcerated in federal prisons and more than 10,200 are in community-based facilities. 

Much remains unknown about those designated for home confinement, including if they have actually been sent home, what facilities they were housed in, or a breakdown by race and gender. Prisoners and their families have reported that they don’t know if they have been considered and rejected for home confinement, or could be considered in the future. 

“The release process has been extremely limited and has been opaque,” said Stiegler. “It’s a black box.”

The process became more confusing this week, when some who had been designated for home confinement were suddenly told their release was rescinded. Some prisoners’ family members had already arrived at the prison to take them home, according to FAMM.

“Families with loved ones in BOP facilities are already worried and anxious because of the rising number of COVID-19 infections and deaths,” wrote the group’s president, Kevin Ring, in an April 21 letter to Barr and Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal. “To have the promise of early release snatched away under these circumstances is simply inexcusable.”

Angela Caldwell told The Appeal that her father, who is incarcerated at a low-security Texas federal prison, was granted home confinement. “I signed my release papers this morning,” he wrote to her on April 13 on the prison’s messaging system. 

But then on April 20, Caldwell’s mother sent out a text: “Okay guys sit down. He’s not getting out.” 

Since then, Caldwell said, she has been “waffling between outrage and despair.” She says that her 67-year-old father suffers from heart disease, a pre-existing condition that may put him at risk of complications from COVID-19. If her father contracts the virus, she fears he won’t survive. 

“He was only supposed to be there for 10 years,” she told The Appeal. “He’s not supposed to die in there.”

This story has been updated with a response from the Federal Bureau of Prisons and more detail about the use of non-contact thermometers.