New Jersey's U.S. Senators are pressuring the Fort Dix prison warden to let more inmates serve out their sentences at home after the number of coronavirus cases at the facility spiked to nearly 800 this week.
In a letter to the warden David Ortiz on Tuesday, Senators Cory Booker and Bob Menendez, both Democrats, wrote that conditions at Fort Dix "have grown increasingly worrisome."
“We are still very concerned for the safety and well-being of individuals behind bars in New Jersey and across our country,” the senators wrote.
The COVID-19 outbreak continues to be the worst in the federal prison system. Nearly half the 2,700 men housed inside Fort Dix have now tested positive for the virus since the pandemic began, according to the Bureau of Prisons, which oversees federal correctional facilities.
Yet only 3% of the men at the low-security federal prison in South Jersey have been granted home confinement— fewer than 100 people, according to the BOP. Under the federal CARES Act, Attorney General William Barr directed the agency in March to review which prisoners could be eligible for home confinement to protect their health. Barr said the agency should prioritize those in low security facilities.
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But the virus has continued to spread inside the former military compound in Burlington County, where men reside in dormitory-style barracks sharing bathrooms and living mostly in 12-person rooms. Cases have skyrocketed in the last month and currently, there are 687 positive cases among inmates and 29 among staff. Another 645 inmates have recovered after testing positive for the virus, according to data from the Bureau of Prisons.
"It is critical that you prioritize the use of your statutory authorities to grant home confinement to as many eligible people as possible," the senators wrote in their letter, raising concerns that disproportionately fewer Black men are being sent home when compared to white inmates.
About a third of those released are Black even though Black men make up 47 percent of the population at Fort Dix. Meanwhile, 66 percent of those released are white and white men account for half the population.
The BOP said in an email to Gothamist/WNYC that the process to determine who is eligible for home confinement is ongoing. Spokesman Justin Long said many of the Fort Dix inmates who tested positive are asymptomatic. He said the BOP is committed to maintaining an open dialogue with lawmakers and will continue to do so.
Rep. Andy Kim is also urging the BOP to lock down the facility and stop any prisoner transfers to Fort Dix until the virus is controlled. He called the outbreak “a clear and present danger to the federal employee staff, the inmates, and to our communities in New Jersey surrounding the Joint Base.”
While prisoners in New Jersey’s state prisons as well as correction officers are already receiving the coronavirus vaccine, federal inmates at Fort Dix have not been vaccinated.
The BOP says the vaccine has been distributed to 68 prisons but none in New Jersey. Correctional officers are receiving the doses first and about half have been inoculated at those facilities.