COVID-19 Behind Bars: Will Releasing At-Risk Inmates, Select Others Keep Lid on Potential Crisis?

COLLEEN O'DEA | APRIL 7, 2020

NJ Spotlight

East Jersey State Prison 

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Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday he is “looking at” the possibility of releasing some state prison inmates to prevent the spread of COVID-19 throughout the system that houses some 19,000 individuals, eight of whom — including three in halfway houses — have now tested positive for the virus.

New Jersey was among the early states and localities to release incarcerated individuals — letting close to 700 people temporarily leave county jails as guards and inmates began testing positive for the virus. But there has been no movement to release any of the 16,000 individuals in state prisons and youth facilities where they would be captive to a COVID-19 outbreak, nor the roughly 2,600 in halfway houses.

Yet 11 states have taken actions to release  at least some people from prisons, according to the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI).

Murphy’s comments came about five hours before the state Department of Corrections (DOC) released new figures showing the first cases of the virus in its prisons, new cases in halfway houses and an increase in positive test results among staff. Prisons are known as disease incubators because so many people live in close quarters and they have large populations of people with chronic medical conditions.

Releasing county prisoners, worked out among officials from the state attorney general’s office, county prosecutors, public defender’s office and ACLU-NJ, was an easier call because most of them were on probation or serving a term of less than a year for a disorderly persons or other low-level offense. State prisons house people sentenced to longer terms for more serious or violent crimes, including rape, manslaughter and murder. But prisons are known as disease incubators because so many people live in close quarters and they have large populations of people with chronic medical conditions.

“Of course, we can’t release all prisoners, but we’d suggest the DOC (Department of Corrections) look at the release of key populations — the elderly and those at higher health risk and those soon to be released,” said Akil Roper, vice president and assistant general counsel for Legal Services of New Jersey. “Some parole boards have been considering earlier releases.”

Murphy considering advocates’ suggestions

Murphy said he has heard the calls from advocates to release inmates who are within certain months of parole eligibility and is considering it.

“That’s something we had a discussion about earlier,” Murphy said Monday during his daily press briefing on the virus. “That’s something that we’re looking at, we take obviously very seriously … If we’re going to break the back of this, put aside who’s where for what reasons, as a health matter, we’ve got to bring everybody along, not just most of us.”

Advocates in New Jersey and nationally are calling for the release of at least some inmates — those nearing their parole consideration dates and those with health conditions that put them at greater risk of infection — to enable the prison system to further separate those who remain incarcerated to minimize the risk of the disease spreading. These calls have gotten more urgent as corrections staff have tested positive for COVID-19.

Monday night, the DOC reported that 67 staffers at 12 of the 16 adult and youth correctional facilities had tested positive, a 63% percent increase in just three days. Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local #105, which represents correctional police officers working for the DOC and the state Juvenile Justice Commission, told Murphy in a letter written Friday by one of its lawyers that it “believes that the released numbers are artificially low as their count differs greatly than the count being kept by our local.”

The new data reported the first positive tests among inmates: two each at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women and Northern State Prison and one at New Jersey State Prison. Two additional COVID-19 cases were reported at halfway houses, bringing the total number to three with the disease, one each at Fletcher House, Kintock Newark and The Harbor House.

There may wind up being more cases. The DOC reported last Thursday that it had tested only 10 prisoners and had isolated or quarantined inmates who had contact with COVID-19-positive people at nine of the prisons, but did not respond to a request Monday for updated data.

Liz Velez, a DOC spokeswoman, said an individual who was tested for COVID-19 was transferred to South Woods State Prison last week to a medically prescribed negative-pressure room by staff donned in appropriate protective equipment. The individual’s test results were still pending as of Saturday and Monday night South Woods still reported no cases among either staff or inmates.

The transfer of an individual assumed positive drew anger from Sen. Michael Testa (R-Cumberland), who said transfers like that one will only further spread the virus throughout the system statewide.

“The NJDOC hasn’t locked down inmate transfers enough to prevent the spread of COVID-19 from prison to prison,” he said. “It’s increasingly clear that inmate transfers at this time within the New Jersey prison system is creating unnecessary risk for other inmates and the corrections officers who watch over them.”

Inmates reach out to NJ Spotlight

Inmates are afraid. Two who contacted NJ requested anonymity for fear of reprisals and described their feelings about what is happening inside the walls.

An inmate at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women said that a dozen women there were being isolated with symptoms suggesting they may be positive for COVID-19 and that she felt the DOC is not testing the women “for fear of the public finding out.” She said that locking women in their cells “feels like punitive solitary confinement, not medical isolation for proper health care and protection.” She urged the state to release prisoners, “especially those who are elderly and any others who have health conditions that make them more vulnerable … because the way it’s starting to look, this virus is spreading, while you keep us hidden in this death trap.”

A man in a South Jersey prison said that inmates were given instructions in written form, yet a number of the people he knows are functionally illiterate and unable to read and understand the guidelines for practicing social distancing. People in need of medical assistance did not understand why they couldn’t get it. Contact with an outsider provided more information than he had received from staff.

State Commissioner of Health Judith Persichilli said her office has been working closely with Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks on the system’s response to the virus and that has meant changes for inmates.

“They are doing everything that we’re recommending,” she said. “I’m sure any change in the process, whether it’s in a state correctional facility … when you change what they’re used to, it can cause some concern, some issues.”

Velez said the DOC’s medical staff “works closely with the Department of Health to identify inmates who need testing” and so far they have decided just the 10 inmates needed to be tested. All of the department’s decisions on isolation and quarantine are done in conjunction with DOH guidance.

Countering the virus in prison

She outlined some steps the department has been taking to minimize the risk of getting the virus.

“We have limited foot traffic in facilities, with the implementation of flexible work arrangements for nonessential personnel that includes a reduced and rotational workforce,” she wrote in an email last week. “Group gatherings have been modified or suspended to minimize potential exposure and encourage social distancing … Educational programs have been adapted in support of independent study and the department has modified its recreation schedules.”

Additionally, inmates are eating in their cells at most facilities, or eating in shifts in the cafeteria so fewer people are in the room together at the same time. Velez said inmates are also being encouraged to wash their hands frequently and supervisors are tasked with restocking soap and paper towels so these are available for use.

Advocates say this is not enough.

The New Jersey Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement wrote Murphy last month, asking him to release certain inmates and provide better education and health and sanitary conditions for those who remain incarcerated. Specifically, the campaign is seeking:

  • the release through clemency, commutation or parole of all elderly incarcerated people, unless they pose a clear and imminent risk to the public;
  • parole of all populations with health conditions that put them at risk of complications;
  • appropriate parole of all who are currently incarcerated but have anticipated release dates in 2020 and 2021.

PPI, the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights and other groups have made similar recommendations for prison systems across the country. According to PPI, about one-fifth of the states have taken their suggestions to heart. Among the largest actions:

  • Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear signed an executive order commuting the sentences  of 186 felons and the state plans to release 743 people who have six months or less left in their sentences;
  • California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation plans to release on parole 3,500 nonviolent offenders with 60 days or less remaining on their sentences.
  • The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles is reviewing inmates with 180 days or less left on their sentences and could release as many as 200 inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes by the end of the month.

The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and other organizations last month asked Murphy to halt all new admissions to juvenile detention facilities, remove youths with asthma, diabetes or other serious illnesses and end “any form of detention or incarceration for youth unless a determination is made that a youth is a substantial and immediate safety risk to others.” The plea added: “While New Jersey has canceled visits for youths’ families, we believe that this is not a time for youth to be separated from their families. This will only exacerbate mental health issues and further isolate youth.” Almost 2,500 youths were incarcerated in January 2019, according to DOC statistics.

Union wants more restrictions

But the union representing corrections staff is seeking greater restrictions for those incarcerated, rather than early releases, as a way to minimize the spread of COVID-19. In a letter to Murphy last Friday, a lawyer representing PBA Local #105 noted that federal prisons and Pennsylvania have adopted such temporary policies.

“If movement of inmates is restricted for a finite period of time, the professionals that work inside the correctional facilities believe that such measures will have a positive effect on thwarting the spread of the virus,” wrote Frank Crivelli in a strongly worded letter. “While we recognize that placing inmates in a ‘state of quarantine’ for fifteen days may not be a popular decision, many of the social restrictions that you have imposed on our state’s citizens have also been unpopular. Keeping this in mind, the vast majority of the general public recognizes that these unpleasantries are a temporary necessity to defeating the virus just as this ‘inmate quarantine’ is also necessary to save the lives of our members.”

The union is also seeking to restrict the movements of those living in halfway houses, as they are currently allowed to leave each day to work in the community and that puts them at risk of being exposed to the virus, contracting it and then spreading it to other inmates and staff.

Crivelli also wrote that union members have made “numerous internal requests” for PPE but have not received it and that the PBA has spent “thousands of dollars” to buy hand sanitizer for officers because it has not been provided to them. The union is also looking for “hazard pay” and a dedicated COVID-19 testing facility.

It’s unclear whether a prisoner release would happen without facilitation by Murphy. Velez said the DOC could not order such a release, and the state public defender’s office said it has little contact with inmates in prison, unless they are representing the prisoners in an appeal. Such decisions could rest with the state parole board.

“Given the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic, the State Parole Board is taking steps within this statutory framework to protect the health and safety of individuals in its custody,” said Tony Ciavolella, a board spokesman, in a statement. “We are reviewing cases as expeditiously as possible and have commenced a review and assessment of all offenders in the revocation process in consideration of the impact of the virus, the needs of the offender, and the safety of the community.”

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