Even Oklahoma did it better. Will Murphy stop putzing around on prisons? | Editorial

Posted Jun 01, 2020

Led by a hearse, a “funeral procession” of protestors seeking to call attention to deaths within New Jersey’s prison system reached its final destination: The site where Phil Murphy holds his daily coronavirus briefings.

In response, the governor said his “strong wish” is that no one would have died. “I mourn the loss of every single life in this state. Period. Full Stop.” But that’s not going to put this to rest.

The same day, Thursday, his people announced two more deaths, bringing the total to 45, with 1,607 inmates confirmed infected so far, and 192 hospitalized. Mass testing is still underway.

Other new data, from a court hearing this week, is just as damning: 14 percent tested positive, yet only 1.7 percent were released.

That’s just 11 percent of the nonviolent prisoners deemed eligible under Murphy’s order.

People are dying, the house is on fire, and instead of jumping to action, his Department of Corrections commissioner, Marcus Hicks, has been lollygagging around. A month into the pandemic, New Jersey was still treating hand sanitizer like contraband, which is crazy.

At least 700 officers tested positive. And since the virus kills in only about 1 percent of cases, 45 prisoners in body bags likely means thousands of untested infections behind bars.

Yet nonviolent inmates are still getting two-sentence letters, flatly informing them that that while they are on a list of those being considered for release, they’ve been rejected. With zero explanation. It could be something as easily remedied as needing a place to stay.

Hicks is a regrettable appointment, given his inexcusable performance, and unwillingness to be interviewed to answer legitimate questions about this -- much like he refused to testify about the rape epidemic at our state’s only women’s prison, on his watch.

At end of the day, though, he takes marching orders from the front office, and his failure is Gov. Murphy’s failure. In other states, governors didn’t leave this up to the prison chiefs’ discretion. They made direct orders for release of large numbers by category, to avoid just the kind of fatal bureaucratic delay Hicks is delivering.

In Kentucky and Oklahoma, governors pushed the button on hundreds of prison releases, allowing those nearing the end of their sentences to be sent home early, to self-quarantine. That diminished the need for a commissioner to exercise discretion to determine who gets let out, after COVID testing or isolation, if needed.

Hicks made mistakes early on, like transferring the infected who could have just stayed in one prison. But the bottom line is, prisons are petri dishes for the virus. The only answer, if we want to prevent new outbreaks that easily hop the prison walls, are large-scale releases.

“If you’ve got someone with a month left on their sentence, it begs the question: Why are we working out an elaborate scheme for this person to be incarcerated at home, rather than just sending them home?” says Alexander Shalom of the ACLU of New Jersey. “The person ends up staying in for the month, because the DOC isn’t satisfied with this or that element of their release plan.”

That’s how it played out here. Sen. Nellie Pou just dropped a sensible bill that would knock up to a year off the sentence of anyone still in prison, another way to release those getting out in the next year anyway. Murphy should have done something like that, right from the beginning. If it lands on his desk, he should sign it immediately.

And there’s still a role for him beyond that, to free others who are particularly vulnerable. It’s not enough to wish for no one to die. As governor, he must do everything in his power to prevent it.

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