Advocates Say Murphy’s Prison Release Order Is Falling Short

Colleen O'Dea | April 22, 2020 | Coronavirus in NJ, Social
Not one inmate has been released, 11 days after chief executive announced release of selected prisoners to stem spread of COVID-19 in state prisons
Credit: Jackie Finn-Irwin
East Jersey State Prison, where state officials report five deaths of inmates due to COVID-19

New Jersey has yet to let a single inmate out of prison as of Tuesday, 11 days after Gov. Phil Murphy announced a plan to temporarily release some individuals to stem the spread of COVID-19 in the state prison system.

In the interim, the virus has been spreading rapidly throughout New Jersey’s prisons and killed 15 inmates as of Monday.

In announcing his executive order April 10 allowing at-risk inmates and others convicted of nonviolent offenses to be released on “temporary emergency medical home confinement,” Murphy had said such furloughs could begin this week.

Last Friday, he said that might not happen until next week and advocates say that will, unfortunately, be the case.

The delays in New Jersey stand in contrast to other jurisdictions, which have announced similar plans and already set at least some at-risk inmates free amid the pandemic.

“The delay from DOC (Department of Corrections) is inexcusable,” said the Rev. Charles Boyer, pastor at Bethel AME Church in Woodbury and executive director of the organization Salvation and Social Justice. “These people were sent to serve prison sentences — not death sentences. The state’s neglect is imposing death sentences upon people it has unjustly severely sentenced.”

Liz Velez, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections, said the department is “diligently working” to implement the process Murphy’s order created. An internal task force has put together lists of inmates considered most at risk of complications from the virus — those age 60 or older who also have a qualifying medical condition get top priority and those either 60 or older or with a medical condition are in the second tier. The emergency medical review committee created by the order — which includes representatives of the DOC and state Parole Board — are reviewing the lists, which total 1,105 inmates.

“Among other things, the committee’s review includes an investigation of the housing address of every person who is considered for temporary home confinement in order to determine whether the home is a safe environment for the inmate and those currently in the dwelling,” she said. “Once the recommendations are made to the commissioner, he has three days to make a decision on each case.”

Offer to help goes unaccepted

Meanwhile, Jennifer Sellitti of the state Office of the Public Defender said 60 lawyers from the agency had volunteered to help in the effort but state officials did not accept the offer. She said she has heard that prosecutors are reviewing the lists of inmates and notifying victims of their crimes of the potential for the release of the inmates, and that process will take some time.

“We’re not expecting to see people released at a minimum for a couple of days,” she said. “We still haven’t seen a single person released, yet the number of people who are dying and catching coronavirus in prison continues to grow.”

ACLU-NJ posted a graphic on its Facebook page, documenting the pace of the process and bearing the message: “Act now, Gov. Murphy. You can save lives before it’s too late.” The group is also urging supporters to send Murphy a message thanking him for issuing his order and urging him to make sure DOC “acts promptly to save lives.”

During his daily press briefing on the pandemic Tuesday, Murphy said the process is progressing as designed. In announcing his release order, Murphy had said he had to balance public health with public safety. Prisons are known as disease incubators because it is virtually impossible to stop the spread of an illness when so many people are living in such close quarters.

“There’s a multi-headed participation because we have to get this right,” he said. “Every loss of life, regardless of where they are, is a tragedy. But we’ve got to make sure we do something like that properly.”

Yet New Jersey is lagging behind many states and the federal Bureau of Prisons, which have already released prisoners. According to Prison Policy Initiative, which is tracking state corrections’ responses to the virus, several states have ordered outright early releases, rather than timed furloughs.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear commuted the sentences of 186 felons on April 2 and hundreds more since then.

In Pennsylvania, where Gov. Tom Wolf announced a release order the same day as Murphy, corrections officials released the first eight inmates on April 15 and as of Tuesday, according to that state’s Department of Corrections, had released 100 individuals. Pennsylvania has a fraction of New Jersey’s positive tests in its system — 49 staff and 27 inmates infected and one inmate death.

A look inside the system

The latest data out of New Jersey’s DOC shows 407 staff and corrections officers infected with the virus, more than double what it was on April 10. Over the same time, 97 inmates in prisons and halfway houses have tested positive, almost four times more than 11 days earlier. Fifteen inmates have died, as has one corrections officer.

Individuals within the system continue to be concerned and report an inability to practice social distancing while many around them are sick.

“They distributed two masks to every resident and told us we have to wear them,” wrote a resident of one of the Kintock halfway houses in Bridgeton who asked to remain anonymous because he fears reprisal. “The only problem with that is they only gave us two and they’re making us re-use them.

Dorm room in a halfway house

“Everyone here has been approved by DOC for community release,” the inmate continued. “They allowed us to go to work for 14 hours a day unsupervised and let us go home on weekends. Now there’s a pandemic killing thousands of people every day and they lock us in here with 280 other residents basically to live on top of each other. It’s sad to say, but the only way it’s going to change is if somebody dies from it here.”

Advocates say it is likely that many more people in halfway houses have COVID-19 than the nine reported positive, because individuals fear reporting an illness and being put back into a prison hospital. DOC officials have not reported whether staffers at the halfway houses are infected because these facilities are privatized.

Advocates continue to question the decision to test individuals sparingly. DOC, which has close to 19,000 inmates in prisons, youth jails and halfway houses, had tested just 121 inmates as of April 21, with 80% testing positive. The department says medical personnel evaluate those who have symptoms of fever, cough and shortness of breath and determine when to test them for COVID-19.

Essex County, meanwhile, has tested 148 inmates at its jail, with about a third of them positive, using a recently approved rapid antibody blood test.

Murphy and health officials have complained about a dearth of available test kits and the state and county public testing sites require an individual to be at least symptomatic in order to be tested. Some require a doctor’s order.

Services needed for those released

Both the state public defender’s office and ACLU-NJ had made applications to the state Supreme Court for the release of some state prisoners.

Sellitti said one reason getting the prison furloughs is more complicated than the county jail releases is that individuals in New Jersey are not represented by lawyers at parole hearings, so public defenders have been unable to advocate for them. Another reason is that the medical conditions for release require documentation, and state human services officials and re-entry programs need to be involved in the review process because a person cannot be released without having services waiting for them on the outside.

Former Gov. Jim McGreevey, chairman of the board of the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, said the organization is ready to help released inmates, including anyone who may not have a family or home to return to. Churches in Newark and Elizabeth have set up shelters and will provide meals. The reentry corporation has also set up arrangements for people to get addiction treatment, social services and telemedicine services, as well.

“We look forward to working with the New Jersey Department of Corrections to provide for housing and basic services for those persons being released,” he said. “We will provide wraparound reentry services at our sites … We can move people immediately into church shelters where they will be safe, secure and have three meals a day.”

Sellitti said her office has set up a toll-free hotline at 833-947-2127 to hear from inmates with medical conditions. Murphy’s order precludes anyone convicted of a serious offense from being furloughed, but there is a court procedure by which any person with a serious medical condition can petition the court for release.

The public defender has asked DOC to post its hotline within correctional facilities so lawyers can be reached by as many potentially eligible individuals as possible, and the office can know whether a person who called the hotline is scheduled for release. The office also has asked for the names of anyone eligible for furlough under the executive order who is not recommended for release, “because they may have appellate rights,” Sellitti said.

The order prioritizes individuals for release according to four criteria:

  • People age 60 and older with conditions the CDC and state DOH have identified as putting them at greater risk to the virus, including heart disease, lung disorders and hypertension;
  • Those who either have such an underlying condition or are at least age 60;
  • People denied parole within the last year;
  • Anyone who will complete a sentence within three months.

So far it appears the DOC has created the first two lists, but not the third or fourth.

‘Good first step’

After the committee evaluates each case to determine whether home confinement would be better for that person, state corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks will get to make a final determination.

Deadlines included in the order seem to indicate that the process of determining who to release should take no more than 10 days once the lists are generated. DOC is then required to reevaluate individuals at least once a week and make additional recommendations as officials see fit.

Boyer, the Bethel AME pastor, said the order, while welcome, needs better follow-through.

“We are six weeks in without one person being released,” he said. “We are constantly receiving reports from the inside that people are sick. The furlough program was a good first step but it is temporary and will insignificantly get at the need to thin the population. Advocates and community organizations have offered to help with wrap around services and housing, to date we haven’t been taken up on that offer. They have not given us any estimates or projections on when, who, or how they plan to release people.”

Sellitti said that even individuals who may not care about those in prison should care about what is happening behind the walls in New Jersey because it can affect everyone: Guards keep getting sick and bring the virus home to their families and potentially others, and corrections officers and inmates who get very sick are going to wind up in already overburdened hospitals.

“This is not just about the people in prison, this is about you and your family,” she said. “It’s a time when we have to think about how one area of this system being unbalanced affects the rest of it.”