Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Denied Medical Care During Pandemic, New Jersey Prisoner Treats Infected Wound With Bleach

The problem started with just a small scrape on his foot, probably caused by ill-fitting boots the prison forced him to wear, reported on June 4, 2020. Maybe this wouldn’t be a problem for most people, but for this 36-year-old man housed at the Northern State Prison in Newark, a small cut on his foot could easily turn into a life-threatening dilemma: He’s a diabetic, and any wound to his feet puts him at risk for infection that could lead to amputation.

Soon, an ugly, open wound broke out and an infection went all the way to his knee. The prison gave him some antibiotic ointment and ibuprofen for pain, plus some oral antibiotics. This didn’t work, and he developed cellulitis and borderline septicemia, a systemic and life-threatening infection that is difficult to treat even in the hospital with IV antibiotics.

Finally, he was transferred to South Woods State Prison, where he received dialysis and was eventually eased off antibiotics. Things got better — until he was transferred to New Jersey State Prison in Trenton. That’s where his other leg swelled to the point it split open. Desperate, he cleaned his infected wound on May 28 with bleach, after a lack of medical attention at the prison.

Also desperate were his family members, who had pestered the New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC) to do something for their loved one, reports. “We are not in a Third World country here,” said his wife, Jessica Ambrose. “He’s supposed to have access to basic medical needs. This is neglect in the prison system.”

The NJDOC has blamed the COVID-19pandemic for the lack of medical care. In a statement, a spokesperson for NJDOC said its health-care contractors “have suspended elective surgery and certain non-life-threatening treatments in light of the pandemic.”

The man was supposed to have an ultrasound to rule out a blood clot in his leg, “but that’s indefinitely postponed because of the coronavirus,” his wife said.

He also was denied early release under the governor’s executive order to release thousands of low-level prisoners to ease crowding in order to avoid exposure to COVID-19. The state approved his release residence in May, but days later the prison refused to release him, saying he was denied. So far, the state has released only a fraction of the approximately 3,000 eligible prisoners, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU).

And New Jersey had the worst fatality rate of any U.S. state prison system, the ACLU said in early June. Out of 14,800 prisoners, over 2,000 tested positive for COVID-19 and at least 45 have died. Of the NJDOC staff tested, 768 tested positive. [Editor’s note: As of October 8, 52 New Jersey prisoners had died, the eighth highest in the county but still the worst per capita fatality rate at 34 per 10,000 prisoners, according to data compiled by The Marshall Project.]

NJDOC said it has taken steps to reduce the risks by handing out face masks and by screening for fevers. A reporter contacted the NJDOC on behalf of Ambrose’s husband and that night he was seen by a doctor. With outside help, the man finally received the help he needed, at least for a short time.

“On May 28, as Ambrose’s husband was disinfecting his wound with bleach inside his prison cell, a stirring rally to remember New Jersey inmates who died of the coronavirus took place in Trenton,” reported. “More than 450 cars gathered from across the state at the Trenton War Memorial for a ‘Say Their Names funeral procession.’ Bearing photos of deceased loved ones, the vehicle cavalcade served as a grim reminder that social distancing is a near-impossible task when you’re trapped behind bars.” 


As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login