by Keith Sanders
In recent months, New Jersey’s Fort Dix federal prison experienced a massive surge of COVID-19 cases. Roughly 1,500 prisoners tested positive for the deadly virus — over half the facility’s total population and more than any other Bureau of Prisons (BOP) correctional facility — with one prisoner dying.
The spike of infections caught the attention of two U.S. Senators and 10 New Jersey state legislators, all Democrats, NJ Advance Media reported. “The conditions at facilities in New Jersey, specifically your facility, have grown worrisome,” the lawmakers said in a letter to Fort Dix Warden David Ortiz.
In January, Ortiz was subsequently relieved of his duties at Fort Dix and temporarily reassigned to an administrative position, according to a BOP spokesperson.
The contingent of legislators included Senators Cory Booker and Bob Menendez. In their statement, they criticized Ortiz’s handling of the pandemic inside his facility. The senators and New Jersey congressional delegates joined prisoners and their families to allege that Fort Dix’s warden did not provide adequate testing or properly isolate COVID-19 positive prisoners.
BOP officials denied the allegations, saying the BOP has taken every measure to prevent, contain and minimize the spread of COVID-19. But according to court documents, Ortiz made it clear to prisoners that since “social distancing is not possible in this environment, masks will help keep you and others from spreading the virus.” Neither Ortiz nor the BOP has explained how, despite the mask-wearing mandate, the coronavirus managed to infect over half the facility’s prisoners.
Senators Booker and Menendez also reproached the BOP for transferring potentially COVID-19 positive prisoners without screening them. They pointed out that hundreds of prisoners tested positive last October after 150 prisoners were sent to Fort Dix from a federal prison in Elkton, Ohio, which had recently been ravaged by the virus. “[We] have grave concerns regarding the Bureau of Prison’s inadequate protocols for COVID-19 testing and inmate transfers,” they stated in their letter.
The lawmakers urged the BOP to halt transfers until the bureau formulated a long-term testing strategy and implemented appropriate screening protocols.
More worrisome, according to the Senators and State House members, is the BOP’s COVID-19 testing protocols do not include correctional staff. The outbreak at Fort Dix left at least 12 prison staff infected with COVID-19. The lawmakers were confounded to learn that staff and guards are not tested as a matter of policy. They consider correctional personnel “frontline federal workers, and it is unacceptable that BOP is not providing them with regular COVID-19 testing.”
The BOP’s failure to test staff not only endangers prisoners and other staff members. “All FCI Fort Dix inmates, staff, and the surrounding communities are now at increased risk for contracting COVID-19, with potentially deadly consequences,” the legislators admonished in their statement.
Ortiz had declined to comment to news media on his handling of Fort Dix’s coronavirus outbreak. The former warden’s new role in an administrative position will not be released at this time, according to a spokesperson.
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