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Medically Vulnerable People in Federal Prison File Class Action for Release from Fort Dix

May 4, 2020

The class action was brought in federal court and seeks the immediate, temporary release of all people confined at FCI Fort Dix who are vulnerable to COVID-19 because of their age or underlying health conditions

TRENTON – The ACLU of New Jersey and attorneys Jim Davy and Matthew Stiegler today filed a federal class action habeas petition on behalf of medically vulnerable people confined at the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) at Fort Dix. (Read a PDF of the legal filing here.)

The Federal Bureau of Prisons has announced 40 people confined at FCI Fort Dix have tested positive for COVID-19 at the prison, and the petition claims the true number of infections is exponentially higher. Conditions at FCI Fort Dix make it impossible for people who are confined there to follow the guidelines of medical experts, increasing the risk of serious illness or death for those who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 because of their age or underlying health conditions.

“FCI Fort Dix is speeding toward a public health catastrophe,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. “Our clients are unable to take even the most basic precautions to protect themselves against the virus. The government is failing in its obligation to keep people in its custody safe from harm, putting them – and the wider community – at risk.”

The petition, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, seeks immediate, temporary release for all medically vulnerable people held at FCI Fort Dix in light of the COVID-19 outbreak. There are currently almost 3,000 people at FCI Fort Dix, living in units of up to 300 people. On April 11 – just days after the first confined person at Fort Dix tested positive – Warden David Ortiz acknowledged in a notice: “Social distancing is not possible in this environment.”

Experts have warned that COVID-19 can spread rapidly among the prison population given these conditions, coupled with the increased chance that staff at the facility will carry the virus back to their communities at home.

In just three weeks, the number of reported positive tests at FCI Fort Dix has jumped from one to 40. Until recently, FCI Fort Dix had only been testing those who presented severe symptoms, and little has been done to prevent asymptomatic cases from infecting others.

“Insufficient testing and preventative measures inside FCI Fort Dix demonstrate the insufficiency of the federal government’s response to a global pandemic that will come at much too high a cost,” said civil rights attorney Jim Davy. “Since it cannot protect the people inside its facilities, the government should reduce the prison population as quickly as possible, for their safety, the safety of its staff and surrounding communities, and to uphold our shared constitutional values.”

The four named petitioners are all medically vulnerable due to their underlying health conditions. The Center for Disease Control has warned that medically vulnerable groups face an increased risk of contracting life-threatening cases of COVID-19.

“At a time of unprecedented crisis, the people in Fort Dix face a punishment far worse than confinement: They face the constant fear that they will be the next victim of a virulent pandemic, and that the finite time they were scheduled to serve will ultimately become a death sentence,” said Philadelphia-based attorney Matthew Stiegler. “It’s imperative that everyone in a position of power do all they can to prevent a public health catastrophe.”

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