Federal Prisons Keep Turning Into COVID Nightmares: 'Everyone Looks Like Death'

With at least 229 prisoners and 12 staffers currently infected, Fort Dix has the most severe outbreak in the federal Bureau of Prisons.
November 12, 2020, 2:05pm
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The men at Fort Dix talk about COVID-19 like they’re in a combat zone. And in the war against the coronavirus, this former U.S. Army outpost in New Jersey is losing—badly.

Converted into a federal prison in the early 1990s, Fort Dix is now ground zero of a COVID-19 outbreak that has raged across the federal prison system since March. The 2,800 low-security prisoners currently housed in the compound’s old military barracks are sitting ducks.

With at least 229 prisoners and 12 staffers currently infected, Fort Dix has the most severe outbreak in the federal Bureau of Prisons. The BOP has not reported any deaths, but the prisoners fear it’s only a matter of time. 

“This building is a war zone,” said Troy Wragg, a 39-year-old epileptic who uses a wheelchair. Wragg was the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed in May against the BOP, alleging dangerous conditions for medically-vulnerable Fort Dix prisoners. He made it through an earlier outbreak, only to test positive November 2. 

“It is filthy, people are ill, everyone is depressed, everyone looks like death,” Wragg said. “They are not giving us any medicine or treatments, and we were told that they were just going to ‘let this ride out, like they do on the street’ by the staff here.”

Other prisoners at Fort Dix also alleged a lack of adequate medical care, with staff only offering Tylenol for all but the most severe symptoms. Many described being housed in decrepit buildings plagued by mold, leaking pipes, and frigid temperatures.

“Right now, it's like living in a crack house in here,” one prisoner wrote to VICE News. “That’s how it feels, and I am from the streets of Dallas, Texas; I know how they look.”

Nine months into the pandemic, the coronavirus continues to spread unchecked across the federal prison system. At least 135 prisoners and two staffers have died, and the BOP has officially recorded more than 21,000 total infections, including over 3,000 “active” cases.

With the outbreak at Fort Dix, the BOP seems to have repeated some of the same blunders it made at the onset of the pandemic, according to court filings and interviews with prisoners and staff. The issues range from expired protective equipment to loosely enforced quarantine rules to an alleged failure to administer pre-transfer tests required by BOP policy.

Brian Kokotajlo, president of the union that represents around 500 Fort Dix staffers, said the prison had gone months without detecting an infection among prisoners. Then, on September 28, a busload of 64 prisoners arrived from Elkton, Ohio, the site of one of the earliest and worst outbreaks in the federal prison system, with nine deaths and over 900 infections, though just five “active” cases. 

Six of the men on the first bus from Elkton tested positive. Another bus that arrived on October 6 also carried six positives. Two more buses came on October 21 and 28, the last carrying five positives—for 17 total.

The transferred prisoners—295 total from Elkton—were quarantined at Fort Dix, Kokotajlo said, but a large outbreak nevertheless followed their arrival. 

“We went from zero to being number one with the highest number of cases in three weeks,” he said. “And it all happened after the Elkton transfer.”

The BOP appears to be losing the battle against COVID-19 on all fronts. Outbreaks have continued to fester at some longtime hotspots, and new ones—like Fort Dix—emerge constantly. In the midst of the crisis, the BOP has ramped up transfers between institutions, a move that corrections officers, prisoners, and outsiders alike say is sparking fresh outbreaks and undermining the agency’s efforts to contain the spread through quarantines and testing.

“This building is a war zone. It is filthy, people are ill, everyone is depressed, everyone looks like death.”

The disaster at Fort Dix encapsulates the failures of BOP’s coronavirus response, starting with the Elkton transfers. The move prompted scathing letters from New Jersey’s members of Congress demanding answers about the agency’s epic bungling.

“BOP’s policy to shift incarcerated individuals from a facility with a known coronavirus outbreak is completely misguided and defies common sense,” New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez told VICE News on Tuesday. “What they’ve effectively done is ensure the spread of the virus rather than contain it, putting incarcerated individuals, staff, and surrounding communities at risk.”

According to the BOP, all prisoners are quarantined for 14 days and tested prior to being moved. The receiving prison is also supposed to test and quarantine new prisoners for two weeks before moving them into the general population, which is what Kokotajlo says happened at Fort Dix. He’s skeptical about how things were handled on the Elkton side.

“They said the inmates were tested when they left Elkton, but personally I don't believe that to be true,” Kokotajlo said. “If they tested them at Elkton, how they made it on the bus and how they made it to us and became positive in a six-hour drive across the state of Pennsylvania, nobody seems to be able to figure that out.”

Joseph Mayle, the union chief at Elkton, suggested false negatives produced by COVID-19 rapid testing, which has also been blamed for the COVID-19 outbreak at the White House, may have been a factor in the infected prisoners being sent to Fort Dix.

“My staff here, they're not going to throw inmates on a bus without testing them,” Mayle said. “If that’s what they're saying, that’s not what’s happening.”

BOP spokesperson Justin Long issued a statement defending the agency and denying that the Elkton transfers caused the outbreak at Fort Dix. “Contact investigations indicate the infections were not the result of this inmate movement but rather may have originated from the community,” Long said. 

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Fort Dix, a former U.S. Army Outpost in New Jersey that was converted in a federal prison in the early 1990s. (Image from the Bureau of Prisons)

The BOP has put a moratorium on additional transfers to Fort Dix, but prisoners from Elkton continue to be moved elsewhere in the federal system. Donald Schlittenhardt was among those who ended up in Yazoo City, Mississippi, after an 18-hour journey by plane, bus, and van where he was crammed elbow-to-elbow with other prisoners.

Schlittenhardt, 54, said he and other prisoners marked for transfer were quarantined for two weeks in Elkton, but they were initially allowed to mingle in the chow hall, commissary area, and recreation yard. It was only in early October, he said, after the first busload of positives was detected at Fort Dix, that Elkton truly put the quarantined prisoners on lockdown.

“Everybody was out there fist-bumping each other in the yard, all that stuff,” Schlittenhardt said. “It wasn't anywhere near a real quarantine. They just do it for a paper trail. Most of the stuff is just a paper trail, so they can say they did stuff that they're really not doing.”

In a November 10 court filing, Fort Dix’s associate warden wrote that the moves from Elkton were made “to increase the opportunities to practice social distancing in compliance with the CDC guidelines at that facility.” Fort Dix and Yazoo City were “identified as having excess bed space.”

Mayle, the Elkton union chief, said the prison has been over capacity since 2000, when the BOP decided to add third bunks to sleeping areas designed for two people. When the pandemic hit,  social distancing in the tight quarters proved impossible and the virus tore through the dorm-style housing units. Around a thousand prisoners have recently been transferred out to reduce overcrowding, according to Mayle, and the extra bunks are now being removed.

But it seems the BOP did not move to reduce the population at Elkton willingly. In April, the ACLU of Ohio filed a class-action lawsuit that sought to have hundreds of medically-vulnerable Elkton prisoners released to home confinement or transferred elsewhere. 

A similar suit filed at Fort Dix was dismissed in June, but the Elkton case has dragged on. The BOP has twice appealed to the Supreme Court, and court records indicate a settlement is now under negotiation. The deal could lead to reforms at Elkton, including more reductions to the prisoner population.

The additional space at Elkton has come at the expense of Fort Dix. The prison has been placed on a lockdown to contain the virus, but Kokotajlo, the staff union president, said he routinely sees staff and senior managers flouting the rules and moving from one side of the compound to another. He also complained about workers being issued hand sanitizer that expired in 2008, and N95 masks so old the rubber straps had dry-rotted.

The BOP has refused to provide on-site testing to staff at any federal prison, but Kokotajlo said a deal has been reached at Fort Dix. Around 300 kits arrived about two weeks ago. So far, however, no staff members have actually been able to use the tests due to a bureaucratic snafu over how they would be administered. Kokotajlo said the issue has been resolved and he now expects the first tests to be administered to staff within the week.

“They never wanted to test staff,” Kokotajlo said. “This is my opinion, but I think they were afraid to test us. If we had a whole bunch come up at one time, they were probably concerned about how the heck they would run the institution.” 

At Elkton, even the prisoners who remain are unhappy with how the situation has played out. The decision to remove the extra bunks and reduce overcrowding has been met with a mix of shrugs and outright resistance. 

“It will no doubt backfire ’cause most of the inmates here have medical issues which require a lower-bunk pass,” prisoner Michael Bear said. “It’s just one more idea by someone in power that can't find their ass with a hand full of fishhooks.”