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With at least three inmates in New Jersey’s county jails testing positive for COVID-19 and the population considered especially vulnerable to the spread of the virus, the state Supreme Court yesterday ordered that most healthy, low-level, low-risk offenders being held in county jails be released as of Thursday.

The order could result in the release of as many as 1,000 individuals on probation or serving a term of less than a year for a disorderly persons or other low-level offense, according to ACLU-NJ. It applies only to those in county jails and is a temporary measure while the state of emergency continues. It is meant to prevent a major spread of the virus within a jail. It does not, however, cover state prisons, where officials remain concerned about a possible outbreak.

“We’re concerned generally and particularly for state prisoners because they are in there for a longer period of time,” said state Commissioner of Health Judith Persichilli, who said there were no COVID-19 cases among state inmates as of Monday.

She said she had no information about positive tests of those in county jails, but officials in Hudson and Essex counties announced a total of three cases of the virus in their facilities.

So far, two prisoners at the Hudson County Correctional Facility have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, the county reported. The jail is on a 14-day lockdown. Essex County announced Sunday that an inmate in Delaney Hall in Newark “tested positive and is exhibiting symptoms” but is responding to treatment, and the detention facility is “taking necessary precautions,” including quarantining the seven other inmates housed in the same dorm as the man who fell ill.

The three inmates with COVID-19 will not be released, but will remain isolated or quarantined.

Why prisons are at high risk

The Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) calls prisons and jails “amplifiers of infectious diseases” because it is nearly impossible to practice safe social distancing in confinement. If a virus like COVID-19 gets inside a prison, it could spread quickly because of the close quarters, and some inmates would be especially at risk due to chronic illnesses.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner issued an order Sunday night to allow the release of all county jail inmates except those being held pretrial or those a special judge deems ineligible. Individuals are to be released by noon Thursday, with sentences either commuted or to resume at the end of the state of emergency. This arrangement was hammered out by the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender, ACLU-NJ, state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal and the county prosecutors after the public defender and ACLU had filed a motion with the court seeking the release.

In his order, Rabner wrote he had “reviewed certifications from healthcare professionals regarding the profound risk posed to people in correctional facilities” and that it “is in the public interest to mitigate risks imposed by COVID-19.”

In a statement, Amol Sinha, executive director of ACLU-NJ, called the agreement a “landmark … that should be held up for all states dealing with the current public health crisis.” While other cities or counties across the U.S. have taken similar actions, New Jersey officials said they believe this is the most sweeping order and the only statewide action release in the nation.

“Unprecedented times call for rethinking the normal way of doing things, and in this case, it means releasing people who pose little risk to their communities for the sake of public health and the dignity of people who are incarcerated,” Sinha said.

Where inmates will go

Grewal called the agreement a “landmark process” and said officials are working to make sure to find places for the individuals being released to go, be it a home, a shelter or to medical treatment. It is not an action he would take under other circumstances.

“I’m a career prosecutor and I take no pleasure in temporarily releasing or suspending county jail sentences, even for the lowest level inmates,” he said. “But this is the most significant public health crisis we have faced in our state’s history and it is forcing us to take actions that we wouldn’t consider during normal times. We know and we’ve seen across the river that jails can be incubators for disease, so we have to take bold and drastic steps. When this pandemic concludes, I have to be able to look my daughters in their eyes to say that we took every step possible to help all the residents of this state including those serving county sentences.”

Gov. Phil Murphy supported the decision, saying, “This is a prudent measure and all efforts have been made to ensure public safety.”

Rabner’s order does not affect anyone serving a term in a state prison, where taking steps to ensure the health of inmates is more problematic. Because prison inmates generally have committed more serious offenses — many involving violence — they are deemed too dangerous to release. Yet they still must live in close quarters, typically with another cell mate, and generally are in communal situations for work, classes, meals and recreation time. Guards, counselors, teachers and others who work with the prisoners also are at greater risk of catching this novel coronavirus.

“There are some things prisoners can control and some they can’t,” said Jennifer Sellitti, director of training and communications with the state Office of the Public Defender. “A prison is only as safe as the Department of Corrections and each individual staff member makes it.”

She said she spoke with a client at one facility, who told her, “We’re good. We just need you people to stay the heck out.” He also said that the inmates have been given access to additional cleaning supplies.

The state Department of Corrections has taken steps to prevent the virus from getting into a prison, including suspending family visits while expanding access to free telephone calls, doing temperature scans for all those who enter prisons and increasing the availability of hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies. But some workers remain concerned that these steps are not enough.

“We are taking this issue very seriously and are continuously assessing and amending our policies, as the governor and CDC issue new guidance,” said Liz Velez, a DOC spokeswoman. “We are currently practicing social distancing in congregate situations, like programs and religious services, and assessing how we can expand social distancing in mess halls and recreational settings.”

Five steps for states

PPI has suggested states take five steps: releasing people from jails and prisons, reducing jail admissions, cutting back on unnecessary face-to-face contact for people on parole and probation, eliminating medical copays for the incarcerated, and reducing the cost of phone and video calls.

Some advocates in New Jersey have been calling for the state to suspend all new admissions to juvenile detention facilities and to move current detainees out of the detention facilities. So far, the state Juvenile Justice Commission has halted family visits and expanded free telephone access and video visits.

Others have been calling for the release of immigrant detainees, a suspension of all check-ins with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials, a halt to all enforcement actions throughout the state, and an end to deportations and transfers of detainees.

A number of immigrants have launched hunger strikes in the three facilities where they are being held in north Jersey — the Hudson and Essex county jails and the Elizabeth Detention Center. The latter facility, which has at least one area where dozens of immigrants sleep in one large room, some close together, reported a healthcare worker had tested positive last Thursday.

So far, ICE has announced it has suspended visits to all facilities across the country and was curtailing its efforts to pick up and detain the undocumented, focusing only on those with a criminal history who pose an immediate public safety risk. The agency also said it would not carry out enforcement operations near hospitals or medical facilities “except in the most extraordinary of circumstances.”

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Dan Ulloa
Dan Ulloa is the Editor and Publisher of Heady NJ, with a background in politics, journalism, and a passion for the cannabis community. He curates and publishes news, events, and insights on the industry. Dan has been a leading voice in the New Jersey cannabis scene, educating and informing the public about this rapidly evolving industry. He ranked #35 on the INSIDER NJ Cannabis Power List out of 100 in 2022.