New Jersey Senators Bob Menendez and Cory Booker are demanding answers from the Bureau of Prisons amid the outbreak of COVID-19 inside Fort Dix that has infected 13% of the population since March—with most of the cases recorded in the last month.
The low-security federal prison houses 2,700 men about 20 miles south of Trenton.
The Democratic senators, along with the state’s Congressional delegation, raised concerns about the growing cases of coronavirus inside the old military barracks in a letter last month. They asked the BOP to implement a testing strategy and stop transfers between facilities until there were no new cases.
The BOP responded to those concerns last week, saying it had contained the virus to two buildings and “effectively prevented the spread of COVID-19 throughout the institution,” according to a copy of the letter sent to the senators on November 24th. But the BOP's own numbers show the outbreak is not over: The agency has reported at least three additional cases among inmates and one among staff this week.
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Through a spokesman, Booker and Menendez called the BOP's response "inadequate.” Steven Sandberg, Menendez’s press secretary, said the senators will “continue to press for additional answers and remedies that will protect the health and safety of incarcerated individuals and staff at New Jersey’s federal correctional facilities.”
Sandberg said the senators sent the BOP additional questions Wednesday night, including asking the BOP to respond to the lack of medical care for sick prisoners and the absence of cleaning protocols reported by Gothamist/WNYC.
Prisoners and their family members described inmates banging on their doors for hours to get medical attention. Others said they only receive Tylenol for their symptoms and are rarely seeing a doctor or a nurse—conditions that lawyers and family members say are continuing to this day.
While some family members said their sick loved ones were finally able to see a doctor, others said their loved ones are still waiting for medical care—and are still testing positive for the virus.
Karen Gasper, whose son Chris tested positive for coronavirus, said her son was being moved out of isolation even though he had yet to test negative. Her 35-year-old son still hasn’t seen a doctor and has a persistent cough.
“I can't comprehend what their thinking is behind all of this other than they just don't care what happens to the inmates,” Gasper wrote in an email.
This week, cases at Fort Dix reached a high of 289 positive prisoners, making it the worst outbreak in the federal prison system. On Friday, 266 of those cases were marked as “recovered,” leaving 103 active COVID cases among inmates, records show.
The BOP said in a statement that an inmate is moved out of isolation after medical staff consider the individual “recovered.” The agency pointed to CDC guidelines that state a person does not need to test negative to be taken out of isolation.
The BOP also said cases at Fort Dix had decreased and the recent surge in positive cases was due to its ramped up testing strategy, not the transfer of inmates between prisons.
The agency has repeatedly said it follows CDC-recommended safety protocols, provides appropriate treatment to its sick prisoners, and thoroughly disinfects an area if there is a positive case. But family members and prisoners sick with COVID told Gothamist/WNYC that’s not happening.
“There's nobody cleaning the bathrooms. There's nobody cleaning the toilets,” a prisoner who did not want his name published fearful it could hurt his chances of home confinement previously said. “They're shooting by the hip and they're praying nobody dies.”
Fort Dix reported its first case among staff and inmates in the spring. Cases quieted down over the summer until buses of prisoners from a federal facility in Elkton, Ohio arrived in waves starting in late September, with a handful carrying the virus.
Prison officials said there’s “no evidence” the Elkton transfer contributed to a rise in cases. At the time, cases were spiking across New Jersey and visits to the prison had resumed. The BOP temporarily halted intra-prison transfers but that moratorium expired November 24th. All visits remain prohibited.
Menendez and Booker are also asking the BOP why they won’t commit to stopping all transfers to all of New Jersey’s federal prisons until cases subside.
This story has been updated with details and comment from the Bureau of Prisons.