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As COVID-19 spreads behind bars at Fort Dix, inmates turn to contraband cellphones, social media for help

On Monday, the ACLU filed suit, warning of a coronavirus ‘catastrophe'

A still from video footage recorded by an inmate with a smuggled cellphone at the federal prison in Fort Dix, N.J. , shows prisoners in the yard, where recommended social distancing guidelines don't appear to be followed. The video was posted to Twitter last month.
A still from video footage recorded by an inmate with a smuggled cellphone at the federal prison in Fort Dix, N.J. , shows prisoners in the yard, where recommended social distancing guidelines don't appear to be followed. The video was posted to Twitter last month.Read moreTwitter video

The video shows only the aftermath of the scene late last month in the federal prison at Fort Dix: A soiled surgical mask and bloodstained paper towels next to a container filled with a mucus-green substance.

A speaker recounts that just moments before, during temperature checks, an inmate had collapsed, vomiting, as his fellow prisoners screamed for help.

Corrections officers rushed to the man’s side, says the inmate making the recording. But before rendering aid, they sprayed him with cleaning products, telling his dorm mates they needed to “disinfect him first.”

That footage — recorded with a smuggled cellphone — was posted on Instagram on April 22, one of a growing number of insider accounts leaked over social media from prisoners in the Burlington County facility.

Together, they depict a corrections environment where conditions deteriorate daily, social distancing is impossible, and inmates and guards feel powerless to protect themselves against the viral disease that has been spreading within the prison walls.

On Monday, the ACLU of New Jersey filed suiton behalf of four medically vulnerable prisoners, saying the U.S. Bureau of Prisons has failed to protect inmates as the number of confirmed cases has spiked from one to more than 40 in three weeks.

“Without significant changes,” ACLU attorney Tess Borden wrote, “Fort Dix is speeding toward catastrophe.”

The suit mirrors others the ACLU and other advocates have brought in recent weeks as coronavirus outbreaks have emerged at jails, prisons, and detention centers across the United States. Suits on behalf of inmates at the Philadelphia jails and the federal detention center in Center City are ongoing.

» READ MORE: Philly’s Federal Detention Center reports first two coronavirus cases

In each, prison officials have maintained that despite challenges in implementing social distancing and proper hygiene behind bars, they feel confident that those in their facilities are protected.

But Fort Dix stands out because of the video and photo evidence from prisoners who say otherwise. Most of the images appear to have been captured on contraband cellphones and posted anonymously.

“Reports from inside Fort Dix paint an alarming picture,” Borden said. “The warden and the Bureau of Prisons director should be hearing the same reports and know about them firsthand, yet they have taken insufficient action.”

One video posted to Twitter on April 5 depicted dozens of inmates milling around the main recreation yard with no heed to social distancing recommendations — well after most of the outside world was under stay-at-home orders.

In another, posted to YouTube weeks later and since taken down, an inmate filmed himself walking past row upon cramped row of bunk beds, no more than three feet apart, in the dormitory style minimum-security satellite camp that houses 230.

“They want us to be six feet away from each other. Explain how we going to do that,” the poster wrote in the video’s description.

The footage that has garnered the most attention is one that surfaced April 22 and said to depict the inmate who collapsed during temperature checks. The Bureau of Prisons disputes the suggestion that a staff member sprayed the stricken inmate with disinfectant.

But one of the plaintiffs of Monday’s lawsuit swore in an affidavit that he witnessed the incident.

“The senior staff member sprayed the inmate’s bed and pillow afterward,” said Michael Scronic, who is serving an eight-year sentence for securities fraud . “Eventually, I yelled, ‘Get him out of here. He needs help now!’”

The lawsuit describes conditions similar to those depicted in the videos. The facility’s 3,000 inmates mostly live in 12-person rooms in buildings that house up to 300 people. They spend their days crowded into the same TV rooms, phone booths, bathrooms, and mealtime pickup lines. Soap dispensers are routinely empty and inmates have taken to pooling meager supplies of shampoo that they’ve bought from the commissary to fill them.

“With nowhere else to go, many spend their days under their covers, quite literally hiding from the virus,” the suit contends.

» READ MORE: Montgomery County’s jail tested every inmate for COVID-19 — and found 30 times more cases than previously known

In a memo to inmates last month, warden David E. Ortiz acknowledged that “social distancing is not possible in this environment.”

Despite a Bureau of Prisons review program to potentially thin federal prison populations by releasing certain inmates to house arrest, not one person from Fort Dix has been set free, ACLU attorneys said. And of the 62 men who were placed into pre-release quarantine together while the warden reviewed their cases last month, 21 have since tested positive.

Troy Wragg, one plaintiff, who is serving a 22-year sentence for financial crimes, has seen ill inmates over the last month in common areas like the daily food line.

A heart attack survivor who suffers from epilepsy and an autoimmune disorder, Wragg, 38, worries he won’t survive, whether he catches the virus or not. The daily stress, he said, has triggered frequent seizures — 13 in the last month.

But with the medical staff focused on coronavirus response, he’s had to rely on his cellmates for care.

“The sound of my bed shaking wakes one of my bunk mates,” Wragg said. “He jumps down and holds my head to prevent a concussion and monitors me throughout the episode to make sure I don’t die.”

Lawyers have asked the court to order the release of inmates over 50 and those, like Wragg, with preexisting health conditions that make them more medically vulnerable. They have also pressed U.S. District Judge Renee Bumb to order prison officials to implement more stringent safety precautions for those that remain incarcerated.

Monday evening, the Bureau of Prisons had not responded to the suit.