After Slow Start, State Begins Furloughing Prisoners to Stem Spread of COVID-19

Clergy, prisoner-rights advocates and families complain bitterly that New Jersey has dragged its feet and put lives in jeopardy
Credit: Matthias Müller via Flickr
Prison wall

It took more than two weeks, but the New Jersey Department of Corrections over the weekend began furloughing a small number of inmates to try to stem the spread of COVID-19, but some advocates say this is too little, too late.

As of 8 p.m. Monday, the DOC had released 54 individuals and put them on emergency medical-home confinement (EMHC), according to department spokeswoman Liz Velez. That represents fewer than 3% of those thus far eligible under the executive order Gov. Phil Murphy signed April 10 that allows the furloughs.

Velez said the individuals, who were furloughed from several different facilities, went back home or to live with friends or other support. They are still considered part of the DOC system. Checking the DOC’s offender search site turned up a list of those on EMHC. With few exceptions, the list shows that individuals sent home so far were sentenced on drug crimes or weapons possession.

Murphy’s order put in place a system to allow at-risk inmates and others convicted of nonviolent offenses to be released temporarily. At the time, he said New Jersey was being proactive in trying to keep prisoners safe from the virus through the furlough program, but a number of states acted sooner and have released outright more individuals.

“Seventeen days later, we know that they (DOC) still have not compiled a comprehensive list of those who would be eligible for this furlough,” said Rev. Amos Caley, associate pastor of the Reformed Church of Highland Park and an organizer with the organization Salvation and Social Justice. “It’s a masterpiece of a mishandled situation.”

Few inmates tested for COVID-19

At least 28 inmates have died and dozens more inmates and guards have tested positive since the April 10 executive order. As of Monday night, a total of 29 prisoners and one guard had died. Systemwide, 145 inmates and 495 staff and corrections officers had become ill. Because such a small number of prisoners have been tested — just 184 inmates or 1/10 of 1% of all — advocates say the number who have COVID-19 is likely significantly higher. The positive rate for inmates tested is close to 80%.

“One week earlier on this order, I think, would have made a difference,” said Jennifer Sellitti of the state Office of the Public Defender of the increases in cases and deaths. “But you know we can’t go back.”

Prisons have been called petri dishes because viral illnesses spread quickly when inmates live so close to one another, do not have access to appropriate sanitation and cannot socially distance from others. Roughly half the states, as well as the federal Bureau of Prisons, have released at least some inmates in response to COVID-19 outbreaks.

Murphy’s order prioritizes individuals for release according to four criteria:

  • People age 60 and older with conditions the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and New Jersey Department of Health have identified as putting them at greater risk to the virus, including heart disease, lung disorders and hypertension;
  • Those who either have 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.

Velez said that as of Monday, DOC officials had compiled a list of 1,866 individuals who meet one of the first three criteria. Matt Platkin, Murphy’s chief counsel, said DOC Commissioner Marcus Hicks “started with the list of prisoners who are both over 60 and have underlying medical conditions” and is now looking at the other groups.

Who’s being furloughed?

Still, it’s hard to know why the 54 individuals furloughed over the past few days have been let go. But age, at least, is not the main factor in most cases. An analysis of the demographics of those furloughed found that they are relatively young, with an average age of 38 and just three individuals older than 60. Whether those who were furloughed have underlying health conditions putting them especially at risk of complications from COVID-19 is not known.

On average, they had served less than 2.5 years, with the longest time served being nine years. They were from throughout the state. Four were women. As for race and ethnicity, close to 60% of those furloughed are black, which is close to the proportion of African Americans in the prison population. Whites make up 22% of those released and just 15% of those incarcerated.

Advocates, service providers and family members of those incarcerated who had reached out to DOC officials to assist in their furlough efforts or to get more information remain unhappily in the dark about what is happening with both releases and testing.

‘Disgusted and horrified’

“I am disgusted and horrified by what is happening,” said Shanta Scott, who has a loved one incarcerated at Northern State Prison, which has the highest number of infections of any DOC facility. “My loved one and almost everyone else on his wing had symptoms of COVID-19. Many had a fever, a cough and were tired. And when people asked to be tested, they were definitively told no, unless you can’t breathe. This shows the utter lack of value being placed on human life for those who are in prison in New Jersey.”

DOC officials have said they are relying on their medical personnel and guidance from the New Jersey DOH and the CDC in determining when to test prisoners.

“What we have yet to find out is if this is all they’re going to release from 1,100, which I would kind of doubt, or whether they’re going to continue doing releases,” Sellitti said. “The other big question is when are lists three and four going to even be ready?”

The public defender was one of a number of groups saying they have been kept out of the process.

“It’s clear they (DOC) want to do this their own way,” Caley said.

He complained about the state’s decision to furlough prisoners, meaning that once the state of emergency has ended they will have to return to complete their sentence, rather than release them outright and commute their sentences as other governors have done. He also was critical that the state refuses to allow any person with a past violent conviction who may be elderly and infirm to be released, saying studies have shown that aged former offenders are the least likely to reoffend.

‘Ill-conceived … gross negligence’

“It’s at least ill-conceived, if not ultimately gross negligence, because what that means … is that there are specific facilities that are automatically converted into death camps,” Caley said. He said the majority of the population in East Jersey and Northern State prisons are violent offenders “and if there are no transfers and no ways to socially distance … these are two of the facilities where COVID-19 is already demonstrated to be doing massive damage.”

One prisoner in another facility said two inmates died within the past several days. Both were over age 60 and both had other medical conditions but neither would have been eligible for furlough because of prior violent-offense convictions.

“He was such a good guy and was very outgoing and involved with the church and always had a smile on his face and he was well into his 70’s and it is heart breaking that he had to pass away in prison but hopefully now he is finally free,” wrote this inmate in an email to NJ Spotlight.

Platkin, Murphy’s chief counsel, said the furlough process was chosen because it is already something the commissioner can do statutorily, to allow for a medical furlough.

“We felt it was a better way to go in part because it kept them under DOC custody,” Platkin said. “If the pandemic abates, these are folks who will be coming back in, as opposed to a commutation. Given the time period and the number of people we had to review, the number of files we would have to do for commutation, it just wasn’t practical.”

Sellitti said the public defender’s office has gotten more than 200 calls through its toll-free COVID-19 hotline — 833-947-2127 — and plans to continue to monitor the releases and file requests with the courts to try to gain medical release for those who may be at serious risk from the virus but are not furloughed. In the meantime, the office is taking some comfort that at least some furloughs have begun.

“We are encouraged that people are getting out,” she said. “That’s 54 people who are no longer at risk of getting the coronavirus and 54 fewer people to make space for in these prisons. We’re just hoping that this continues and it helps hold the number down and flatten the curve inside prison.”

Protecting youthful offenders

Meanwhile, advocates for incarcerated youth, who are in facilities overseen by the state Juvenile Justice Commission (JJC), are calling for the state to work more quickly to release young offenders so they do not get sick. As of Monday, the JJC reported that 30 staff and 19 residents of two of the state’s three youth prisons and at residential community homes had tested positive.

Retha Onitiri, director of community engagement at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, called positive news a 24% reduction in the youth detention population last month in 30 states as documented by a recent survey by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. But it is also a reminder that New Jersey has further to go to help its youth.

“It is urgent that Gov. Murphy follow the example of these local detention measures and work with judges, courts and the Juvenile Justice Commission to release as many youths as possible as quickly as possible from New Jersey’s youth prisons and youth detention facilities,” she said. “Incarceration is harmful to youths on a normal day, and our young people simply cannot protect themselves from the threat of this highly infectious virus.”