NJ COs claim state is risking their health as COVID-19 spreads in prisons
Officers and inmates across the state prison system described conditions ripe for an outbreak, with a shortage of sanitizing products and lax policies at some prisons
By Blake Nelson and S.P. Sullivan
NJ Advance Media Group
HUNTERDON COUNTY, N.J. — A recent inmate at New Jersey’s only women’s prison has tested positive for the coronavirus and everyone who was in contact with her is being quarantined, state Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks told staff Friday in a letter obtained by NJ Advance Media.
But the corrections department isn’t counting her in its public statistics because she was released to Morris County before she was tested.
The letter renews questions about the spread of COVID-19 in the state’s prisons, where inmates and officers have been raising the alarm about a lack of personal protective equipment, lax social distancing and the shuttling of inmates between facilities on opposite ends of New Jersey.
Statewide, the department says 41 employees and one incarcerated person at a halfway house have tested positive, but as of Thursday only 10 inmates had been tested for COVID-19 and the department was still awaiting results in seven of those cases.
The unidentified former prisoner, who was held at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Hunterdon County, showed no signs of illness during a “discharge health assessment” prior to her release, the letter said.
However, the letter does not make clear when she was released, when she tested positive or how many inmates and staff members had been in contact with her.
In interviews this week, inmates and officers across the state prison system described conditions ripe for an outbreak, with a shortage of sanitizing products and lax policies at some prisons that still allowed inmates to play basketball and forced them to eat in close quarters.
Liz Velez, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, said Friday prior to the release of Marcus’ memo that the department was “constantly evaluating our policies (to) make any necessary changes in consultation with (state health officials) and in accordance with CDC recommendations to ensure the health and safety of our inmates and staff.”
Corrections officials did not immediately return messages seeking comment on the former Edna Mahan inmate Saturday.
The disclosure came amid mounting calls from state corrections unions and civil liberties advocates for Gov. Phil Murphy to take executive action to stem the spread of the coronavirus behind bars.
More than 100 officers and more than 150 inmates have been quarantined, according to Mike Gallagher, vice president of PBA Local 105, the state’s largest corrections union. (The state Department of Corrections has not provided details on how many are being quarantined.)
“We don’t think that the state cares about the health and safety of our correctional police officers — their lack of action is showing that," Gallagher said. “When it hits the department of corrections full force, it’s going to have a devastating effect for the inmates and the officers,” he said, echoing concerns voiced by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.
In a letter Friday, the union reiterated a request that the governor stop most transfers and lock down state prisons, similar to what federal prisons already did.
At his Saturday press briefing in Trenton, Murphy said stopping transfers was on a “long list of considerations.” He also acknowledged that corrections staff, like health care workers, did not have enough personal protective gear.
Judy Persichilli, the state’s health commissioner, said prisons now need to follow the same rules as nursing homes. Communal dining would ideally stop, she said. If that was not possible, inmates needed to eat six feet apart, and staff should wear masks at all times.
Union officials and inmates say social distancing guidelines aren’t being followed consistently across New Jersey’s state prisons and halfway houses.
Michael Mesi, the executive vice president of the New Jersey Superior Officers Association, which represents corrections lieutenants, said on Wednesday that corrections officials were still transferring halfway house inmates back into prisons for “minor infractions.”
“They are telling us there’s no reason they shouldn’t be moving inmates around,” Mesi said. “It just makes sense to leave them at the institution they’re at, unless they’re hospitalized."
“If it does get loose in one of these facilities," Mesi said, referring to the transfer of inmates from the northern reaches of the state to prisons in South Jersey, “it’s going to spread like wildfire.”
Two halfway house residents told NJ Advance Media that they and others are afraid to report any potential COVID-19 symptoms out of fear that they’ll be transferred back to prison, further increasing the chance of spread.
©2020 NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J.