Op-Ed: NJ’s Emergency Release of Prisoners Does Not Go Far Enough

Urging Gov. Phil Murphy and Department of Corrections commissioner to consider additional state-prison inmates for temporary release to home confinement

Gov. Murphy’s executive order to implement a temporary emergency release of prisoners in New Jersey’s state prison system is a plan that begins to save lives during this COVID-19 pandemic. But New Jersey’s plan — as bold as it is, given that few other states have taken such action — does not go far enough to prevent the spread of this virus inside state correctional facilities to staff or inmates.

The executive order, which mandates home confinement, limits eligibility to only those prisoners who have committed a nonviolent crime. This eligibility restriction overlooks some of the most vulnerable. They are the people who may have been charged with a violent crime (murder or gun-related robbery), but they have been serving their sentences for many years. They have grown old in prison and are suffering from multiple health conditions. The executive order appears to focus only on the type of charge rather than evaluating the inmate’s record while inside, such as taking advantage of the rehabilitation programs available and having a record of good behavior.

I have heard the desperate cry of prisoners locked in state prisons who do not want to die from COVID-19 any more than any of us outside wish to die or have any of our loved ones or neighbors die. For over six years now, I have been a pen pal writing to inmates in New Jersey state prisons. Here are two recent quotes from those with whom I have corresponded:

  • “Come on people, this is a world-wide disease that is killing people by the thousands! Isn’t anyone out there listening? You have inmates trapped in a death box, and you are just going to ignore them? We are humans also! We breathe air like you. We eat like you. We have families like you. We bleed just like you, and we will die by COVID-19 just as you are.”
  • “Tell them to please consider the inmates who are over 60 years old and have multiple medical issues that can be affected by this virus. They are too old to want to recommit a crime. They think only about going home to be with family, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. They are tired. They are old. They learned their lesson as opposed to an inmate who has only served a short sentence.”

Over the years, my exchange of letters and later emails (through the prison’s JPay email system) has been sharing simple pleasantries that friends share about the weather, holidays, books, prayers, and more. The letters have been a form of accompaniment akin to visiting someone in prison without going to see the person face-to-face. Now, with this crisis, the connection feels like a life-or-death sharing of information and emotional support during a very scary time for everyone.

Crowded living conditions

Prisoners are held in crowded living quarters where physical distancing is nearly impossible for both inmates and staff. The department is taking what measures it can, but Commissioner Marcus Hicks acknowledged that it is “a unique challenge” when he appeared at the April 10 coronavirus briefing with Gov. Murphy. With the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), both employees and inmates are at risk.

The Sentencing Project, which works for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system, has been advocating that states should expand their release eligibility to inmates who are elderly and have health conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19 regardless of their crime. Leaving out people who are old and sick because they have a violent crime background excludes a large group of people who no longer pose a threat to society because they are old and have diminished physical (and sometimes mental) health. If these medically vulnerable inmates are made eligible for the emergency medical release to house confinement, more room will be available to implement social distancing inside the prisons.

Another mechanism for consideration of safe release already exists due to the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision that juvenile offenders serving life sentences without parole should have new sentencing hearings. Justice Elena Kagan wrote in that decision that the problem with such mandatory sentences is that “every juvenile will receive the same sentence as every other — the 17-year-old and the 14-year-old, the shooter and the accomplice, the child from a stable home and the child from a chaotic and abusive one.” The court determined in its 5-to-4 decision that life sentences without parole for youths are a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Moreover, aging in prison may mean that a child has become an adult and left the angry recklessness of youth behind. When combined with the record of the person’s behavior while inside, this category of inmate may also be a candidate for release as someone unlikely to go back to committing crimes.

I express my plea to Gov. Murphy and Commissioner Hicks as well as the New Jersey Parole Board to include older and/or medically vulnerable prisoners regardless of crime because this would fulfill an urgent public health need to save lives during this pandemic without causing harm to the public.