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One of the biggest COVID-19 outbreaks has hit New Jersey State Prison (NJSP). 

For the past few weeks all recreation, commissary, and law library movements have been canceled. Most inmates have been locked inside their cells for days on end and are only allowed to come out for a 10-minute shower. 

The rumor mill inside NJSP has been churning and questions are circulating about the flood of infections across the state prisons and the speed at which it occurred.

NJSP is made up of three separate compounds, the west, north, and south. The west compound was the first to be built in 1834, the other two followed in the mid-1900s.  Each compound is independent of the other; rarely does anyone encounter someone from another compound unless they are on their way to the clinic or law library.

On Saturday, January 8, 2022, I was at work in the south compound, as I am most weekends, taking care of the upkeep of the mental health unit. I was about to wrap it up for the day when my supervising officer notified me that I needed to get back to my unit. 

”You tested positive,” he said. 

Before the pandemic, “positive” would refer to a urine test for drugs. Testing positive in the COVID-19 era, however, results in the same outcome: lockup. 

I wasn’t too concerned because I was vaccinated and felt fine. Yet, I knew that I was about to be moved off my unit in order to quarantine. I started thinking about all the vulnerable inmates in wheelchairs that I had assisted in the past few days. I hoped that I somehow didn’t spread the virus, though that scenario seemed unlikely.

Once I was back in my unit, the officer told me to pack a bag, as I was going away for 14 days. That irritated me because prison staff who test positive are only required to quarantine for five days. In response to my complaints, my wing officer just shrugged his shoulders, saying, ”Nothing they do makes any sense here.”

Only a week into the new year, I was temporarily moved to the infamous 7-Wing in the west compound. Known by the inmates as “The Projects,” this unit was once reserved for those who were placed on administrative segregation (Ad-Seg) until a court ordered its closure. Before COVID-19, the prison’s rat and cockroach population had been its only recent residents. 

7-Wing is a long, straight unit with five tiers of steel cells. The staircases are narrow and long. Stepping inside, I felt like I was inside a battleship. The steel walls and their rivets are painted gray with mechanical piping, and countless valves line the walls. The entry into my cell was a tight fit for my 5-foot, 9-inch frame. 

Once I finished unpacking, I started to ask questions. I learned that some of the guys have been here longer than the required 14 days. In one case, a guy was quarantined just because his test result was inconclusive.

I inquired as to how often people were coming to 7-Wing. ”They’ve been coming in waves,” someone said. 

I witnessed that immediately because another 15 men arrived on my tier from the same housing unit by the end of the day.

On my first night, I couldn’t sleep. I was used to having a solid steel door that kept my cell quiet, but on 7-Wing, the doors were made of bars, so you heard everything. The constant sound of coughing flooded the unit interspersed with an occasional deep moan from aching bodies. 

It wasn’t until someone began yelling for a nurse that I came to realize that no one from the medical department had stopped by. It was three days before anyone from Rutgers Health came by, and only then to conduct quick temperature checks.

Everyone, including the officers, was frustrated. Maybe it was because they were just as powerless as we were. When I told an officer that the nurse hadn’t provided me with my regular medication for three days, he had no answer. He just stared blankly as if to say, ”I didn’t sign up for this.”

Our food delivery was a disaster as well. Every breakfast consisted of rice cereal with spoiled milk. Most of the inmates had lost their sense of smell and taste, but I was unable to stomach the foul dairy, so I tried to hold off until lunch — but that wasn’t much better. We got another cold tray with three slices of slimy turkey, some fruit and a quarter cup of potato chip sticks. Dinner was the only cooked meal we received, although it arrived cold. Last night, we ate boiled noodles with a small amount of green peas. We were still starving afterward.

The stress over the punishing conditions continues to build as there are now nearly 80 of us in total. 

I’m realizing that there might be no end to this. As long as there will be new variants, we will get sick. There are guys in here right now that have been down this road multiple times.

According to many prison staff, this latest massive outbreak hit the prison population following an annual corrections officers’ holiday party hosted by the Policemen’s Benevolence Association Local 105. The event was reportedly held in Atlantic City at a location with an indoor pool. 

We are hearing from New Jersey Department of Corrections employees that the outbreak was not just isolated to NJSP, but crippled all 12 prisons in New Jersey, leaving them all understaffed.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Michael J. Doce is a writer incarcerated in New Jersey.