The virus has turned NJ prisons into death houses. The governor must act now | Editorial

The tragedy unfolding inside New Jersey’s prisons demands an emergency response from Gov. Murphy, who needs to consider whether Department of Corrections commissioner Marcus Hicks is capable of handling this cascading horror of illness and death with the urgency it deserves.

Call us skeptical. New Jersey’s prisons lead the nation in the rate of coronavirus-related deaths, with 42 inmates and at least 3 prison employees lost, and both inmates (525, as of Friday) and employees (605) falling ill at a frightful rate.

And as a report in NJ Advance Media showed with alarming detail of the Hicks’ poor performance throughout the pandemic, the crisis was made worst by the DOC’s mismanagement of inmates, inadequate protection of employees, failure to implement Murphy’s order to release older offenders, and the butchering of a testing protocol that is stuck at the starting gate

Start with that: The governor committed to universal testing for all inmates and employees back on April 30 — that’s 25,000 tests in all — but as of Friday, only 609 tests had been conducted.

Among those 609, however, a jaw-dropping 89 percent were positive.

You’d think Hicks would recognize the exigent need to get inmates and correction officers tested.

Perhaps his greatest blunder was related to Executive Order 124, which Murphy signed April 10. It called for the release of those with the greatest risk of catching the virus, notably inmates older than 60 whose sentences were to expire within three months. The Supreme Court inspired this by releasing low-level offenders from county jails back in March. That went off without a hitch.

As of last Tuesday, the Parole Board had released 429.

But while more than 3,000 state prison inmates would qualify for temporary reprieve, only 100 inmates had been released by the DOC as of Wednesday — largely because Hicks wants to review each case. It took him 17 days to release the first. By then, 24 inmates had already died.

This is unconscionable, but the theme running throughout the disheartening NJAM investigation is that many of the actions taken by Hicks’ famously flawed department defied common sense.

Health concerns were purely coincidental, as the report noted how the DOC shuttled inmates from North Jersey prisons, where the virus was endemic, to facilities in the South, where it was rare; jammed prisoners into facilities without knowing whether they were infected; forbid inmates to have masks and hand sanitizer more than a month after a public health emergency was declared; and refused treatment to inmates who showed flu symptoms, according to more than a dozen NJAM sources.

Management of prison personnel also followed a pattern of cruelty: The DOC forced them to work when exposure required isolation; denied them motel access even weeks after a program to house quarantined first responders had been in operation; and protective gear was consistently inadequate.

A nurse who was ordered to work in a COVID unit at Northern State Prison — where they have had 158 infections and 8 deaths, as of Friday — said her boss “could care less if I died

This is not something that should be put off until Murphy works out beach protocols. This demands immediate action: “The crisis in prisons,” says Amol Sinha of the ACLU, “is going to long outlast the crisis outside, especially if we don’t take action now. And that’s going to impact not just people who are incarcerated, but the corrections staff, their loved ones, and all of us.”

That means the governor must either get the phlegmatic DOC commissioner to get his department moving, or replace him. The Legislature should begin hearings — the Senate already is looking into the rape factory at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, another DOC matter that the Murphy Administration has yet to address with any urgency or transparency, with Hicks refusing to even show up to testify.

It was clear since March that the virus would erupt in any place where social distancing is a rumor and hygiene is a myth. Months later, the lives of inmates and corrections personnel are still in terrible jeopardy. The governor must act now.

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