A federal judge in Camden has rejected a lawsuit seeking the release of potentially dozens of medically vulnerable inmates from the Fort Dix Federal Correctional Institution in New Jersey due to concerns over the prison’s ability to protect them from the coronavirus.
The ACLU of New Jersey sued the prison’s administrators earlier this month, saying that without significant changes, the prison was “headed toward catastrophe.”
But in her ruling Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Renee Bumb argued that the portrait inmates’ lawyers painted of Fort Dix as a “coronavirus deathtrap” was “not really a fair one” and not supported by the evidence.
While acknowledging prisons — with their cramped quarters and limited ability, limited hygiene, and difficulties implementing social distancing guidelines — pose a challenge for officials seeking to curb transmission of the virus behind bars, Bumb concluded that the U.S. Bureau of Prisons’ efforts to limit contact between inmates and tighten cleaning regiments had been adequate to protect inmates, if not entirely foolproof.
She also added: “Conspicuously absent in [the ACLU’s] analysis is any meaningful discussion of the risks associated with a large-scale release of inmates. What would be the plan that addresses the safety and security of the communities to where they are released.”
ACLU lawyers had asked Bumb to give class-action status to their suit and order the release of all inmates over 50 and those with preexisting health conditions that make them more vulnerable should they become infected.
They argued that the facility’s 3,000 inmates mostly live in 12-person rooms in buildings that house up to 300 people and make social distancing impossible. 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.
As of Wednesday, at least 58 inmates have tested positive since the start of the pandemic.
But prison officials pointed to their current numbers — 22 inmates who are actively infected and 26 who have recovered — to argue that preventative measures including twice-daily temperature checks, strict quarantining procedures, and increased testing capacity are working.
The Fort Dix lawsuit was one of several the ACLU and other organizations have filed on behalf of inmates at detention centers across the country during the pandemic. Similar legal fights involving detainees in the Philadelphia jails and the Federal Detention Center in Center City remain pending.
The ACLU of New Jersey said it was considering its next move.