A Voice from Prison Blog | Criminal Justice Reform & Constitutional Rights

Post 4: COVID-19 Outbreak at Fort Dix Federal Prison

People, both inmates and staff, have been getting sick for weeks at Fort Dix, the largest Federal Prison in the country, located in New Jersey. However, administration and medical personnel have been avoiding the issue, likely in efforts to not admit to another COVID-19 outbreak, the last of which left several inmates dead in this prison compound. For weeks, inmates have been passing a sickness around, while medical and administration fail to diagnose and choose not to test inmates for COVID-19.

For me (Tyler King), this started a couple of months ago, at Fort Dix Federal Camp Facility, where I started sneezing up blood one night. The duty CO (correctional officer) needed to check my body and conducted a strip search to ensure I was not assaulted. When he decided that I was in fact telling him the truth, that I was sneezing up blood, even due to the sheer amount of it, he said the night captain would not be able to do anything other than send me to the hospital. He said I would need to wait for sick call in the morning, because there are no medical staff members on duty after-hours, even though it has been stated for years that we have access to medical 24/7.

I went to medical the following morning, but there was no medical staff available other than the nurse dispensing medication. I have hypertension, where my vitals were above 180/120. This is extremely high and I asked about seeing the doctor. I had been promised I would see one since at least six months after I first got to this facility, due to several medical issues I was experiencing. I was told again that I would see a doctor. This has still not happened.

It’s been clear for weeks now, that COVID-19 is in our facility. The new camp counsellor (Gene – who has been helpful in getting a number of things rectified at this facility, even with push back from other departments – is probably one of the only staff members who has tried to treat us humanely) asked everyone who felt sick to proceed to medical to get tested. Medical refused to test more than a handful of people, and results were not shared with the inmates. We were still required to get out of bed in the morning and forced to complete our required work assignments, even outdoors, while people were still extremely sick. I was also sick again for three days. During this time, I attended medical again for a sick call, where I was charged with a co-pay again and unable to see the provider. I was reprimanded for waiting until the holiday, as if I had control over when I get sick in a facility where it is impossible to social distance. I was told again that I would see the doctor, which has still not happened. I was also refused a test for COVID-19.

Just before this weekend, we were finally required to attend a town hall meeting with administration at the facility. The staff finally had to admit to the COVID-19 outbreak as too many people were getting sick with no resolution. They finally admitted that they had positive results from the tests and those individuals who were tested positively were sent to the Special Housing Unit (SHU) which is a fancy term for solitary confinement. This is a common reaction in the prison system. People who test positive are sent to solitary confinement without any medical support and expected to get well while enduring the torture of being locked in a cell for days at a time without any interactions or things which can keep your mind busy.

It was announced that those who choose not to receive their COVID-19 vaccine would be forced to leave the facility, into a quarantine unit which was recently condemned, partly due to exposed asbestos – on the grounds of Fort Dix. This was another fancy way to retaliate against inmates within the system who choose not to comply with what administration and staff who instruct and desire, but legally, can not force prisoners to comply with. Non-compliance is taken like a slap in the face to most staff members, who take it personally. During this discussion, the facility doctor (who I still have not seen) made announcements regarding the outbreak. There was a debate over masks with an inmate, as the CDC recommendations for mask quality are not followed within our BOP facility. This individual was pointed out and put on a watch list. There are no available methods for us to purchase or receive quality masks. We must make due with what is provided. The facility doctor went further, to say that she did not believe that masks would be worn properly and preemptively choose to take further measures of punishment, without giving inmates a chance to prove they would follow the recommendations of medical.

Following the meeting, our new warden got wind of the plan, which he immediately reversed. He asked who authorized the plan and went back on all the plans that were already underway. Another plan to his approval was made, after inmates were already being transported from the facility, which allowed them to stay in another locked down side. A new town hall meeting was called, where we were instructed of the new procedures to be followed. The inmates who had not received their shots would be allowed to stay at the facility and not forced to the condemned site.

To implement the plan, movement of most inmates took place all the way until the late night hours. Due to the sheer number of inmates now forced to my own side of the facility, my bunk bed was taken away from me, both the top and bottom, which I was already assigned to. I was reassigned to a top bunk without a ladder. I was told that if I did not comply, I would be sent to the SHU, for failure to give up my assigned space and move to a top bed without a ladder. I have already fallen three times and my ankle has hurt enough for me to limp.

In fact, many individuals do not have ladders attached to their bed. The facility was not designed for maximum capacity, especially during a COVID-19 outbreak and pandemic. There is no possible way to social distance according to CDC guidelines with the sheer number of inmates within the same part of the facility. Sickness has been spreading faster than ever on my own side, as one might expect, with confining so many individuals together while denying COVID-19 tests to those who ask. Personally, I do not wish to join solitary confinement again for further punishment for being sick. I have already done so much time there for other quarantine measures and can tell you how hard it is on you mentally – take a look at the previous blog post regarding solitary confinement if you are interested.

Currently, several guards and staff members still refuse to wear masks. This was brought up in the town hall meetings, and the individuals who brought this up were looked down upon by the staff for making a legitimate statement of concern. It is impossible for inmates to bring COVID-19 in – only staff members who return to the community can bring this sickness and pandemic to our facility. Also, the non-vaccinated inmates are not confined to their unit – the B side. I have seen them mixed in with the rest of the inmates for the past few days. Nothing against them, as they of course are likely not spreading the virus as much as those vaccinated on our side. Especially with the BOP trying to take systemic measures which punish them for not taking a vaccine.

They have been provided a TV, microwaves, and phones/computers within the unit, several things we, the vaccinated, were not even afforded with. Not to mention that I personally choose to get the vaccine as we were promised by the acting warden we would be given a special purchase (the item and its value unknown) and still have not received the item as promised.

Over this weekend, we had an inmate fall out on the bathroom floor on our side. He was reported to the duty CO, who radioed for assistance, but left him on the dirty floor next to the urinals for at least 20 minutes. He later tested positive for COVID-19 and was sent to solitary confinement. Also this weekend, we had visitors coming in the front door of our facility back into the locked down portion of inmate areas. I am guessing there was no one there to turn them around due to lack of staff. Several of these visitors did not have masks on and had to ask inmates for directions to where they were supposed to be. It is incredible that visitors (non-BOP employees) can just walk into a federal prison facility and come back in to a ‘secure’ inmate population. I have also not been approved to teach my business classes to the general population here due to the COVID-19 outbreak. There are no other programs going on to better the inmate population.

There are of course a number of take-aways from this discussion. I am not here trying to point fingers. The systematic injustices might not even be completely intentional. However, they do exist – bottom-line. This is not the first time this has happened. Look into the news for Fort Dix and see how many people died last year during the prior COVID-19 outbreak. Inmates are suffering. Even staff members are suffering. But this is a life or death situation, where many judges are reluctant to release most of the population back into the public, into home confinement or other options. This comes from Fort Dix – a low security and a minimum security facility. Why would it be so difficult to return these members of the population back to their family, to avoid deaths, constant sickness and suffering? People in here are hurt, and will likely be dying again. Why does it have to take pleading to the general public for the criminal justice system to do what is right? These are individuals who could be productive and give back to the community in some way, rather than getting sick and dying within the walls of a prison facility.

For those of you who might support government controlled healthcare, in a socialist way – what you see is what you get. You may disagree that the government would not treat the general population as they would inmates. But consider, this is probably not intentional systemic injustice. There is simply a lack of public oversight (meaning citizen and not career politicians) and a failure to really understand the beast of the nature of private healthcare. While costs are out of control, obviously, we do need to find real solutions. But handing control over to the government, when it has proven incompetent to handle healthcare for other citizens of the United States, sets a horrible precedent. We need true healthcare, both inside and outside prisons. The entire population does not need to be suffering and dying from this pandemic over multiple times. And inmates just so happen to not have any choice but to follow the guidance of prison administration and staff, which has not resulted in such a good end result.

Hopefully the public will see this as a plea to support inmates. I do not intend to speak down to the BOP or Justice Department – I want to be a part of the solution. Let’s get in contact with our representatives, our senators, and our community leaders – who we don’t have real access to in here. Lets make a difference. No one needs to suffer and die from this pandemic in prisons a second time. Especially non-violent and potentially productive individuals who don’t need to cost the tax payers anything more.

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