Four days after saying he was considering the release of some New Jersey prison inmates to stem the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order Friday to start the process to release, at least temporarily, an unknown number of individuals with convictions for nonviolent offenses.
Residents of prisons and halfway houses have complained about conditions they say have put them at risk of contracting the disease. NJ Spotlight has heard from a half-dozen individuals or their relatives about conditions in facilities throughout the state who complain inmates are living in close quarters with people who have symptoms that might indicate they are infected but who are not being tested.
Murphy’s announcement came during his daily press briefing on the pandemic, minutes after he revealed the first state corrections officer had died of the disease and about 12 hours after the state Department of Corrections posted the first inmate death.
The governor said the executive order balances “public health on the one hand and public safety on the other.” He said a “robust process” would be put in place to expedite the temporary medical furlough of those who are at greater risk of complications from the coronavirus due to their age or existing medical conditions and those who may have been denied parole within the last year or whose sentences are set to expire within three months.
“I want to stress that no one convicted of a serious crime, such as murder, sexual assault, among others, will be eligible for consideration,” Murphy said.
Cases have tripled among guards within the last week
Marcus Hicks, DOC commissioner said at the Friday briefing that the department is still trying to determine how many individuals may be eligible for release. The goal is to at least slow the spread of the disease behind the walls, where close quarters make social distancing virtually impossible and the number of cases has been ballooning. In the last week, the number of cases among guards more than tripled to 150, and while no inmates had been reported positive on Friday, April 3, 20 were a week later.
There may be others incarcerated with the disease, though, as DOC appears to have been testing inmates only sparingly, while individuals in several prisons and halfway houses assert that they know or are sharing a room with people who appear to have COVID-19 symptoms, including a dry cough, but have not been tested.
As of Thursday, a total of 35 inmates systemwide had been tested, with 20 positive, seven negative and eight results pending. The virus was found in staff or inmates or both in all but two of the 16 facilities run by the DOC. So far, the department is reporting cases in just three of 14 halfway houses. About 16,000 individuals are in prisons with another 2,600 in halfway houses.
Hicks said all actions taken by prison officials, including the testing of inmates, is based on guidance from the state Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As of Friday, 400 inmates throughout the system were in quarantine, as well as about 1,000 employees, he added.
Advocates, friends and relatives of inmates cheered the decision, but some still question what took so long, contending that while the state ended visitations to prisons and halfway houses 3½ weeks ago, other staff — including teachers and guards — continued to come and go on a daily basis. The state Supreme Court ordered the release of low-level offenders from county jails back on March 23 as a result of which close to 700 individuals in that system were allowed out temporarily.
A number of advocacy groups had been urging Murphy to act, and both the state public defender’s office and ACLU-NJ recently had made applications to the state Supreme Court for the release of some state prisoners. Prison Policy Initiative lists 11 other states that have already taken steps to release at least some prisoners, through an expedited parole review process, a commutation of sentences or on grounds similar to those Murphy announced Friday, although Murphy’s deputy counsel put that number at seven. Two weeks ago, the Federal Bureau of Prisons began identifying nonviolent at-risk inmates with a low likelihood of recidivism to release to home confinement.
The governor defended the timing of his decision, saying not many states have taken this extraordinary step.
Murphy: ‘It doesn’t mean we can’t do better’
“We’ve been hit with a tsunami,” he said, adding that Hicks and corrections officials “have done an extraordinary job” during this difficult time.
“That doesn’t mean that we all bat a thousand every day,” Murphy continued. “It doesn’t mean we can’t do better. And it doesn’t mean we don’t care because, as I’ve said, not only do we need to care as one human to another regardless of the circumstance, but … we don’t break the back of this virus unless we bring all of us along, not just most of us.”
ACLU-NJ executive director Amol Sinha praised the governor’s action, calling the executive order “a strong first step.”
“Initiating the release of certain people from state prisons to stem the virulent COVID-19 pandemic, if done right, will save lives,” said Sinha. “We sincerely hope the details and implementation of this executive order match its potential for good.”
He also said, though, that the state needs to take additional measures to make life in prison safer for those who remain behind the walls.
“To know that New Jersey did all we could while there still was time, the state must take steps to allow as many of us as possible to keep social distance — and to provide as many people as possible with the opportunity to do so,” Sinha continued. “We hope that the governor and the Department of Corrections will continue to prioritize the health of people who live and work in correctional facilities. This will make us all safer.”
The executive order requires that and Hicks pledged that his department will do so.
“We will continue to evaluate our processes and our practices to ensure that we are tackling this issue as best as possible,” he said. “We will continue to identify modifications that can be made in procedures that can be made with one thing in mind: to protect the safety of our staff, inmates and everyone, including the public.”
Allegations of inadequate quarantining
Yet residents of prisons and halfway houses have said they have been put at risk of contracting the disease. And some half-dozen individuals or their relatives have contacted NJ Spotlight about conditions in various facilities throughout the state. In all cases, the people asked for anonymity for fear of reprisals. These are some of the conditions reported:
- At one Newark halfway house, individuals who had contact with those who tested positive have not been quarantined, staff lack personal protective equipment and are not screened at the start of their shifts to ensure they are not ill;
- At New Jersey State Prison, where the inmate who died was being held, men who were on the same unit reportedly are not being tested, not being isolated and not being given gloves or masks and were told not to wear homemade masks. These men were also supposedly in contact with staff who are currently isolated at home;
- At a Bridgeton facility, a resident reported that residents are no longer being told to fill out daily health surveys and no one has taken their temperature in a few days. It is impossible to social-distance when sleeping in a room with 11 others, including at least two who are coughing, and the residents are not allowed to leave the facility to work anymore.
“They really need to be testing inmates here, this is getting out of control,” wrote a man living at the Bridgeton facility.
But Hicks insisted there is a process in place to ensure that everyone who fits the criteria can get tested.
“I don’t believe that really anyone can make the point that they don’t have health care if they have symptoms or if they want to move forward with testing if they are symptomatic,” he said, adding that DOC has also waived all copays for medical exams so no inmate would be unable to get needed medical care.
Hicks outlined steps DOC has taken to try to minimize the spread of the virus within the facilities. These include limiting foot traffic, modifying or suspending group gatherings, classes and recreation time. Most inmates are eating in their cells. State prisons have suspended the intake of new inmates from county jails and suspended all work release programs. Staff have stepped up cleaning and sanitation at all facilities. All workers are now wearing masks.
‘Unique challenges’ to achieve social distancing
“You can imagine that when you’re in a correctional facility, in a correctional setting, there are unique challenges to try to institute social distancing,” he said. “However even with our limitations, we have made significant modifications that reduced the foot traffic within our facilities and that has been an essential element in our ability to curb the potential introduction of the disease.”
Inmates will not be released without a place to go and the services, including food assistance and general assistance benefits, that they might need, Hicks said. He noted that DOC officials are working on discharge plans and that before anyone is released, they will receive a health assessment.
“We believe that this (executive order) is just another tool for us to mitigate this issue,” Hicks said.
Technically, the order gives DOC the authority to grant what’s being called temporary emergency medical home confinement “to our most vulnerable incarcerated individuals who have not committed a serious offense,” said Hicks. It creates four categories of inmates eligible for release.
The first includes 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. The second is those who either have an underlying condition or are at least age 60. In the third are those denied parole within the last year. The fourth list includes those who will complete their sentences within three months.
A committee including representatives of the DOC and State Parole Board will evaluate each case to determine whether home confinement would be better for that person, given the current circumstances. Prosecutors and crime victims will have input. Ultimately, Hicks will get to make the final determination.
“We will be working diligently to … get this process started,” Hicks added.
Murphy said the process of determining who is to be furloughed is to begin “within the next few days.” Deadlines included in the order seem to indicate that the process of determining who to release to home confinement take no more than 10 days, once DOC has generated lists of those eligible.
The executive order specifies that DOC will reevaluate individuals at least once a week and make additional recommendations for temporary release due to age or other medical conditions as officials see fit.