Corrections Commissioner a No-Show as Lawmakers Hear Critics of State Prisons’ COVID-19 Response

Inmates’ family members among those who say efforts to contain spread of the virus were inadequate; Assemblyman left with ‘probably more questions than answers’
Wednesday’s virtual joint hearing of two Assembly committees heard criticism of the Department of Corrections’ efforts to curb COVID-19 in state prisons.

A Wednesday New Jersey Assembly committee hearing on the state prisons’ handling of the COVID-19 outbreak left members with more questions than answers, as corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks did not show up to respond to numerous problems raised by inmates’ family members, advocates and the corrections officers’ union.

During a two-hour joint virtual hearing, the Assembly Judiciary and the Law and Public Safety committees heard from those critical of how the state Department of Corrections has dealt with the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus, from slow and lax attempts to contain the spread of the virus to  sluggish implementation of inmate releases under an executive order Gov. Phil Murphy signed April 10. They also heard emotional pleas from relatives of those who were sickened or died in prison due to COVID-19.

Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson), chair of the judiciary committee, started the hearing by saying that some of the stories he has heard about the situation in state prisons are “disconcerting, to put it mildly.” At the end of the meeting, he said he had “probably more questions than answers,” but he is concerned that failures of the system have contributed to the state’s unenviable ranking as having the highest virus-related inmate death rate in the nation. The corrections department reports that 46 inmates had died as of Tuesday night, with 2,451 inmates and 778 staff sick. Three staff also have died due to the virus.

“Our response to COVID-19 within our high-risk correctional facilities lagged, leaving us with the unsettling reality that our prisons are leading the nation in number of deaths,” Mukherji said. “Today we learned that systemic failures led to some of these deaths, which may have been preventable.”

Mukherji said he spoke with Hicks prior to the hearing and the commissioner said he could not address the committee due to last week’s Supreme Court decision that guarantees those denied a furlough or parole the right to appeal to the courts for release and other “external inquiries he is facing.”

Mukherji: It would be good for public to hear from Hicks

Still, Mukherji said he was sorry that Hicks provided only written testimony and did not make himself available for questions, adding, “I think the public would benefit from” hearing the commissioner’s answers.

Asked during his daily media briefing why Hicks did not attend the hearing, Murphy said only, “I can’t speak to why the commissioner wasn’t there.”

Advocates told the committees of a lack of cleaning supplies and masks and the continued housing within the general population of those who may have been infected — at least through much of April — as well as the inability to test all but the sickest individuals until mid-May. Others focused on such systemic problems as mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses that have filled prisons with thousands of individuals.

Joseph Krakora, the state public defender, said that 3,600 black inmates are serving mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses, including possession of even a small amount within 1,000 feet of a school and that African Americans make up 77% of all those serving mandatory sentences for such crimes. He called on lawmakers and the governor to enact a law ending such minimum sentences for nonviolent drug and property crimes, which the Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission also recommended last fall.

“So there’s a concrete step that, had it been taken, the prison population would have been reduced by thousands before the pandemic hit,” he said.

Three relatives of inmates spoke about feeling helpless for not being able to keep healthy their loved ones with underlying medical conditions that put them at risk of serious complications from the virus and, in one case, pain at the loss of a son.

‘I don’t know anything else about his final hours’

“I was told that my son was rushed to the hospital, that he couldn’t breathe. I don’t know anything else about his final hours or about his last days,” said Bernice Ferguson of her son Rory Price, who died May 1 at age 39, within weeks of his expected release. She spoke through tears at times and in a loud voice at others. “I still haven’t even received his belongings … I’m very, very upset and angry.”

Quadnesha Self said her son, who has asthma, tested positive last month for COVID-19 in one of the state’s juvenile correctional facilities and she has had difficulty getting to speak to him or getting information about him. She said the juvenile justice system’s main goal is to punish, not help youths who get into trouble with the law.

“If it were designed to rehabilitate, I, as my child’s mother, would have been consulted and informed at every point in my child’s illness,” she said. “As far as I could tell, there was no real plan in place to protect our loved ones in jails and prisons. And so we need legislation to create oversight. We need you to help release our kids to their homes or at least to places where their safety and health is a priority.”

She and advocates called on the committees to advance legislation (A-4235) that Mukherji is sponsoring that would provide “health emergency credits” to many adult and juvenile inmates, reducing their sentences based on time served during a health emergency. It would, in effect, reduce the sentences of all but repeat, compulsive sex offenders by a year due to the current state of emergency. That bill was not up for review during Wednesday’s hearing but could be posted for a hearing soon.

Urgent need ‘to do something’

“If there is anything I can really stress, it is the urgency to do something,” said the Rev. Charles Boyer, pastor at Bethel AME Church in Woodbury and executive director of the organization Salvation and Social Justice.

Committee leaders expressed an intention to do just that, both to continue looking into the failures of the correctional system and how to prevent future mistakes, as well as considering future legislative actions.

Assemblywoman Annette Chaparro (D-Hudson), vice chair of the law and public safety committee, said “there was not a lot of clarity so there wasn’t urgency” in the ongoing furlough and parole process and that more individuals, such as nonviolent offenders within six months of release, should have been let out to protect them — and those remaining incarcerated — from getting ill. A DOC spokeswoman said that, as of Wednesday, 291 individuals had been paroled and 228 were out on furlough as a result of Murphy’s order.

Chaparro noted that lawmakers already had been talking about reforms to juvenile detention and the treatment of incarcerated adults before the viral outbreak and this work would continue.

“Once you’re in the system, we know how many stories we hear about young men and women that are incarcerated, that don’t make it out, and it’s for other reasons,” she said. “We’ve really got to think about this because we’re not doing a service to anyone … We have to really think about how they got there and how we’re going to put them back into society and make a difference because everyone benefits.”

Said Mukherji, “Our work has just begun.”