On Oct. 29, the prisoners of building 5812 at Federal Correctional Institution Fort Dix, the low-security prison in central New Jersey, were invited to a town hall meeting about the COVID-19 outbreak raging through the facility.
A list of about 70 names had been posted behind plexiglas. The remaining 150 men who could not find their names on the list were told to assume they had tested positive, advocates said. Their cell block was now a quarantine unit.
One, Troy Wragg, whose complex medical conditions had already left him wheelchair-bound, had been the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of New Jersey seeking release for a class of medically vulnerable people. A federal judge dismissed the case in May. Now, Wragg wrote to his wife, his fears had been confirmed: “I am sick. It is official. Prayers and hard work are all that will help.”
Families and advocates are raising alarms about the conditions at Fort Dix, where 229 prisoners and 12 staff are now sick. They say the outbreak was preventable — and blame the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) for transferring 150 prisoners this fall from Ohio’s FCI Elkton, where more than 1,000 prisoners and staff have been infected.
On Monday afternoon, New Jersey’s U.S. Senators, Cory Booker and Bob Menendez, sent a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons calling the situation a “rapidly escalating crisis.” The situation, they said, demands an indefinite moratorium on inmate transfers, and immediate testing of all staff and prisoners.
“It is clear that BOP does not have an effective plan to ensure COVID-19 positive inmates are not transferred between facilities,” they wrote to BOP Director Michael Carvajal. They added: “All FCI Fort Dix inmates, staff, and the surrounding communities are now at increased risk for contracting COVID-19, with potentially deadly consequences.”
The Bureau of Prisons did not respond to a request for comment on Monday afternoon.
As recently as mid-October, U.S. Attorneys opposing compassionate release motions by Fort Dix prisoners argued that “the BOP has taken effective steps to limit the transmission of COVID-19.”
Videos purportedly taken by a prisoner inside 5812 and circulating among family members show a unit in chaos — debris scattered and trash overflowing — a byproduct of a shortage of staff and healthy inmate workers, according to family members.
Wragg’s wife, Megan Hallett Wragg, 28, said her husband sounds hoarse and out of breath. “He barely has a voice. It’s very raspy. He’s coughed up blood from coughing so much. Everybody there just walks around like zombies,” she said.
Wragg told her he was not receiving medical attention. He added that the prison’s medical director said the disease would have to “run its course.”
Shannon Clark Moses said her husband Joshua, 39, was in the same unit as Wragg. “There’s no way we can socially distance,” he told her. He described hanging towels around his bunk, a fort to keep out the disease.
On Oct. 29, Joshua found out he was on the list of those who’d tested negative. That night, they were moved to a different building. But, within days, he too was feeling lethargic and feverish. He tested positive, and was instructed to carry his mattress and belongings back to quarantine.
The last time Moses heard from him, a week ago, he told her he couldn’t breathe. “I’m hearing about men passing out. He said big, healthy, strong men ... he’s watching them pass out on the floor, and be carried off," said Moses, 38, of North Philadelphia.
The situation at Fort Dix, which has a population of 2,600, has been at the center of a series of federal lawsuits waged by prisoners seeking compassionate release.
Those petitions have largely been denied by judges who cited the low incidence of infections there — but that could be changing. On Nov. 3, a judge in the Eastern District of New York granted release for Daniel Mongelli, citing “the failure of the Bureau of Prisons to prevent and control a COVID-19 outbreak at FCI Fort Dix.”
Currently, Fort Dix has the second-highest number of infections in the federal system, behind a Bastrom, Tex., federal prison.
At Philadelphia’s Federal Detention Center — where about 90 prisoners on one unit have been tested a result of federal litigation — 68 tests have so far come back positive.
That’s according to Linda Dale Hoffa, a lawyer with Dilworth Paxson representing a group of prisoners in a federal habeas petition.
“Our concern from the beginning is they do not test their correctional officers,” she said. She added that prisoners are not routinely tested unless they’re being transferred.
“The numbers are very, very alarming — and they’re fast approaching what’s happening at Fort Dix.”