Lawmakers have 'grave concerns' over outbreak at NJ prison

Officials called on the BOP to halt transfers to Fort Dix until it implements a testing strategy and there are no active cases


By Joe Atmonavage
NJ.com

BURLINGTON COUNTY, N.J. — A group of New Jersey members of Congress on Monday called on the federal Bureau of Prisons to halt inmate transfers to Fort Dix correctional institution — which has the second most current cases of COVID-19 of any federal prison in the country — until it implements a testing strategy and there are no active cases.

The lawmakers sent a letter to the bureau as a coronavirus outbreak has been ongoing at the South Jersey prison since federal officials began transferring inmates to the facility last month. After having no cases of the virus at the prison on Oct. 9, there are now at least 229 positive cases, according to the BOP website.

The letter, which is signed by U.S. Sens. Robert Menendez and Cory Booker, both Democrats, as well as all 10 of New Jersey’s Democratic House members, said the lawmakers have “grave concerns regarding the Bureau of Prison’s inadequate protocols for COVID-19 testing and inmate transfers.”

According to the letter, more than 150 inmates were recently transferred to Fort Dix from a federal prison in Elkton, Ohio that was devastated by the virus during the early months of the pandemic. At least five of those inmates arrived at the facility on Oct. 28 with the virus and were placed in isolation, according to the letter.

In their letter, the lawmakers said a number of inmates who transferred from Elkton were put in building 5812 at Fort Dix, where the coronavirus outbreak started last month, according to inmates and their families.

“It is clear that (the bureau) does not have an effective plan to ensure COVID-19 positive inmates are not transferred between facilities,” the letter reads.

Inmates and their families have told NJ Advance Media in recent weeks that the prison is unequipped to handle the outbreak and the facility has turned into the “Wild West” since the bureau began transferring in inmates and the number of cases spiked.

“All FCI Fort Dix inmates, staff, and the surrounding communities are now at increased risk for contracting COVID-19, with potentially deadly consequences,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter.

Federal authorities have said in court filings that inmates who were transferred into Fort Dix and tested positive were "immediately placed in isolation in a third structure on the Fort Dix campus,” and would remain there until they were negative. In denying inmates' requests for compassionate release or serving their sentence under home confinement during the pandemic, prosecutors have repeatedly argued that the bureau has “adequately addressed the risks of the spread of COVID-19.”

The Bureau of Prisons has not responded to multiple requests for comment on the outbreak at Fort Dix.

The bureau recently stopped inmate transfers into Fort Dix until at least Nov. 23, though the legislators argue the moratorium should be extended until it “eradicates the new COVID-19 outbreak at the facility and formulates an effective and accurate testing strategy to protect both staff and inmates from future outbreaks.”

The letter calls on the Bureau of Prisons to “immediately” test the more than 2,700 inmates and hundreds of staff members at the prison, as well as testing both groups on at least a bi-weekly basis. The bureau does not offer COVID-19 testing for prison staff, and at least 12 staff members are currently positive with the virus, according to the agency’s website

“Fort Dix’s employees are frontline federal workers, and it is unacceptable that BOP is not providing them with regular COVID-19 testing,” the letter says. “By failing to test FCI Fort Dix’s employees, BOP is needlessly endangering not only these employees but their families, all inmates, and the entire surrounding community.”

The letter also asks the bureau to halt inmate transfers into New Jersey’s other federal prison, Fairton, for the time being. There is currently one inmate and five officers positive at the prison, according to the BOP.

The lawmakers also sent the bureau seven questions they have surrounding the outbreak at the prison, including if the agency would commit to halting transfers, what their long term testing strategy was for the prison and how the prison has spent emergency funds allocated to the correctional institution during the pandemic.

Besides Booker and Menendez, U.S. Reps. Frank Pallone, Jr., Bill Pascrell, Jr., Albio Sires, Donald M. Payne, Jr., Donald Norcross, Bonnie Watson Coleman, Josh Gottheimer, Mikie Sherrill, Andy Kim and Tom Malinowski signed the letter.

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(c)2020 NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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