Curbing the spread of COVID-19 in state prisons

Certain inmates and parolees would be released early under signed legislation

An inmate in a mask, by Shutterstock.
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An inmate in a mask, by Shutterstock.

Gov. Phil Murphy has signed legislation requiring public health emergency credits to be awarded to certain inmates and parolees during a public health emergency. The credits are intended to expedite the release of inmates who are approaching the end of their sentences.

The legislation includes certain exclusions and prohibits inmates or parolees from contacting their victims upon their release.

“Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, our administration has worked tirelessly to save as many lives as possible and to stem the spread of COVID-19,” Murphy said. “Since March, the population in State correctional facilities has decreased by nearly 3,000 people (16 percent), including more than 1,200 people who were released under Executive Order 124. This dramatic reduction has allowed for critical social distancing as part of the fight against COVID-19.”

According to the NJ Department of Corrections, 1,059 employees have tested positive for COVID-19, and 2,923 inmates. 51 inmates have died across the state.

The closest state prison to Hudson County is Northern State in Newark. At Northern State, 165 staff members have tested positive, and 232 inmates, according to the NJDOC. Ten inmates have died.

Since Aug. 22, six inmates and no staff members have tested positive.  No inmates have died since July 26.

Stopping the spread 

Under the bill, public health emergency credits would be awarded to adult inmates or juveniles within 365 days of their scheduled releases.

Credits would accrue at the rate of 122 days or four months for each month, or portion of each month, served during the declared emergency. There will be a maximum of 244 days or eight months of remission to be awarded for any declared emergency period.

Credits would not to be awarded to anyone serving a sentence for murder or aggravated sexual assault or who has been deemed a repetitive, compulsive sex offender.

“Thanks to the efforts of our correctional leadership, the COVID-19 positivity rate among our incarcerated population is at an impressive low of 0.09 percent. But the threat of COVID-19 is still present,” Murphy said. “Reducing our prison population will undoubtedly further our mission to combat COVID-19. This law further reduces the prison population to allow for even more social distancing.”

Primary sponsors of the bill included Hudson County state Sen. Sandra Cunningham and state Assemblyman Raj Mukherji. An Assembly panel advanced the legislation in July.  It has since been approved by the full Assembly and Senate.

“New Jersey has the highest rate of inmate deaths due to COVID-19 in the nation, and one of the highest rates of infection among those incarcerated,” Cunningham said. “This legislation puts a stronger system in place to protect our prison population when we face public health emergencies to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”

“Our prison system has been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Inmates have been afflicted at a particularly alarming rate due to the inability to quarantine or practice social distancing, creating a higher risk for individuals and the community at large upon their release,” Mukherji said in a joint statement with fellow assembly members Shavonda E. Sumter, and Verlina Reynolds-Jackson.

“If we can enhance public health and safety by releasing eligible prisoners who are getting out anyway, we can effectively help reduce the spread of the virus in these facilities and reduce risk to the community upon their release.”

‘Doning the right thing’

Prison reform advocates voiced their support after Murphy signed the legislation.

“With the signature of this bill, Governor Murphy is not only doing the right thing for New Jersey’s most vulnerable families, but he is also gifting the rest of the country a model for best practices during a pandemic,” said Reverend Amos Caley, organizer at New Jersey Prison Justice Watch.

“The spread of COVID-19 in New Jersey’s prisons has been a matter of public health, a matter of racial justice, and, fundamentally, a matter of life and death,” said Amol Sinha, executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey.

“New Jersey understands that reducing the prison population will protect public safety, save money, and stop dangerous diseases like COVID-19 from spreading behind bars,” said Jessica Jackson, chief advocacy officer at the REFORM Alliance.

For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at disrael@hudsonreporter.com.