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Advocates Demand Governor Murphy Intervene in Jails, Prisons and Psychiatric Hospitals to Prevent Spread of Coronavirus

prison bars
Photo: / AFSC

What happens inside jails and prisons does not stay inside jails and prisons. Formerly incarcerated people and corrections officers carry the effects of violence home to their families and communities. Reducing violence and improving safety and health behind bars is thus essential for the prosperity of all communities. -Hon. John J Gibbons and Nicholas de B. Katzenbach, Confronting Confinement

NEWARK, NJ (March 23, 2020) – On March 17, 2020, community organizations, religious and secular leaders, advocates, and individuals came together to send New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and other state officials a letter calling for priority attention and specific actions to prevent the spread and limit the impact of the COVID-19 virus in New Jersey’s jails, prisons and psychiatric hospitals.

The letter is a call to action. We know that without coordinated attention to the pandemic in the State’s institutions, which incubate and transmit illness, we cannot effectively contain the spread of the deadly corona virus in our community. The Governor must use the authority, resources, and guidelines available to protect the lives of those incarcerated.

The letter states, “We issue our call to all branches of state government, because of the necessity of coordinating fiscal and programmatic efforts in this crisis. We understand the difficulty of implementing the recommendations below, because of the necessity for policy redirection, and the challenges of resource limitations in the 'corrections,' immigration, and health care systems. However, the current crisis requires that such problems finally be addressed…we have directed our call to leading officials in all three branches of state government, and have also urged these public servants to advocate for comparable actions by federal authorities in all immigrant detention facilities in New Jersey.”

The full text of the letter and list of signatories can be found below.

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The People’s Organization for Progress is a Newark-based grass roots organization dedicating to seeking social and economic justice, in the streets and institutions of New Jersey.

The AFSC Prison Watch Program, within the national American Friends Service Committee, empowers individuals harmed by criminal justice policies and violence to heal and transform the conditions under which they live.


Governor Phil Murphy 
Statehouse
125 West State Street
Trenton, New Jersey 08618

To the Honorable Phil Murphy, Governor of the State of New Jersey:

We are writing to you in this emergency period, with a wide distribution to officials in each branch of state government. We are requesting that your administration build upon the actions you have already taken, by immediately giving priority to the difficult task of preventing the spread and limiting the impact of the COVID-19 virus in the total institutions within your jurisdiction, and advocating for comparable actions by federal authorities in all immigrant detention facilities in New Jersey.

At the state level, we are referring specifically, to the state, and local (county and municipal) “correctional” facilities, and the psychiatric units and hospitals of New Jersey – all of which are within state regulatory control. Our insistence on prompt action is based on the general consensus that these total institutions are known to be incubators, aggravators and transmitters of infectious diseases, not only within facilities, but to the wider community.

We also know that people confined in such institutions are more likely than the general public to be vulnerable to severe illness and death from the virus, and the spread of the virus to total institutions is inevitable. Therefore, confinement of vulnerable persons in these institutions, unless absolutely necessary for public safety, must not be allowed to become a death sentence. And since total institutions confine people who are stigmatized, and whose staff members are often devalued, priority attention, at the highest level of government, is essential.

We issue our call to all branches of state government, because of the necessity of coordinating fiscal and programmatic efforts in this crisis.

We understand the difficulty of implementing the recommendations below, because of the necessity for policy redirection, and the challenges of resource limitations in the “corrections,” immigration, and health care systems.[1] However, the current crisis requires that such problems finally be addressed.

Therefore, using the authority, resources and guidelines available to you,[2] we call on our state government to take the following actions to prevent and contain the spread of COVID-19, within total institutions and to the community:

1.     Release all elderly incarcerated people (over the age of 55) from the correctional facilities, unless there is clear evidence that release would present an unreasonable risk to the physical safety of the community, through clemency, expedited commutation and parole practices, and preparing prisoners for safe release;

2.     Similarly, release all incarcerated populations that the Center for Disease Control has classified as vulnerable (those with asthma, cancer, heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes), unless there is clear evidence that release would present an unreasonable risk to the physical safety of the community;

3.     Release all such prisoners, and all other prisoners who have anticipated release dates in 2020 and 2021, to appropriate parole supervision;

4.     Advocate for the release of people in federal immigration detention within New Jersey;

5.     Reduce the local and state prison population, by all other available extraordinary means, consistent with public safety, to ensure that capacity is such that cells are not shared, that there are sufficient medical beds, and there are enough prison staff to ensure safety for staff, those incarcerated, and visitors:

  • by reducing admission, through changes in police, prosecutorial, immigration and judicial practices;
  • by releasing people detained pretrial, without the use of bail bonds, and without charges for electronic monitoring;
  • by immediately suspending all unnecessary parole meetings and eliminating parole revocations for technical violations;
  • by expediting the implementation of New Jersey Senate Bill S761 and ensuring that all those eligible for administrative parole release be immediately provided access to an administrative hearing; and
  • by screening prisoners on admission and diverting ill people from correctional and immigration detention facilities to appropriate medical settings.

6.     Mandate screening of all persons entering correctional facilities, provide soap, CDC-recommended hand sanitizer, medical care, comprehensive sanitation and cleaning of facilities and other safety measures free of charge as recommended by the CDC, for those who remain incarcerated; including preparing for indicated quarantine and hospitalization of ill prisoners; 

7.     Circulate educational materials that clearly state the measures they can take to minimize their risk of contracting or spreading the virus (i.e. importance of proper hand washing, coughing into their elbows, and social distancing); to all individuals in the total institutions. Educational materials should be distributed in multiple formats including:

  • written materials in English and Spanish as well as any other necessary languages; and
  • audio materials in English and Spanish, as well as any other necessary languages.

8.     Eliminate medical co-pays within total institutions;

9.     Eliminate barriers to communications with families and loved ones not required by safety considerations, such as phone call, video call, and email costs, and unreasonable time limits on all forms of communication;

10.  Mandate and effect comparable interventions within psychiatric units and hospitals, including but not limited to accelerating the release of hospital patients who no longer meet the standard for involuntary civil commitment;

11.  Mandate and effect comparable interventions for Juvenile Justice Commission Secure Care Facilities;

12.  Advocate for the distribution of testing kits and other necessary resources from the federal government;

13.  Implement the collection of data regarding COVID-19 in the state’s total institutions that include the same information tracked in the community; and

14.  Release to the public the existing plan and procedures in place to address COVID-19 in the state’s total institutions.

We can, of course, encourage and assist individuals to take the precautions now widely advised. However, for the people who live and work in total institutions, we must rely on our government to take the actions listed above. We would be happy to meet with you to discuss further details about our recommendations.

Respectfully,                       

Jean Ross, Esq., Member, People’s Organization for Progress

Bonnie Kerness, American Friends Service Committee, Prison Watch Program

Organizations:

  • Alliance of Families for Justice, Soffiyah Elijah
  • Campaign to End the New Jim Crow, Greater Trenton
  • Cherry Hill Women’s Center, Roxanne Sutocky
  • Coalition for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC)
  • Deportation, Immigration, Response, Seth Kaper-Dale
  • NASW-NJ, Jeff Feldman
  • NJ People’s Organization for Progress (NJPOP)
  • The Reformed Church of Highland Park, Seth Kaper-Dale
  • Real Cost of Prisons Project, Lois Ahrens
  • Solidarity22, Crystal Mor
  • T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, Eliana Chavkin
  • Women Who Never Give Up, Gale Muhammad

Individuals: (Organizations and locations for identification only)

  • Angela A. Allen-Bell, Director of Louis A. Berry Institute for Civil Rights and Justice, and B. K. Agnihotri Endowed Professor at Southern University Law Center
  • Mary K. Brown, Resident, Princeton, NJ
  • Serges Demefack, Project Coordinator, End Detention and Deportation, Immigrant Rights Programs (AFSC)
  • Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, PhD.
  • Laurence Hamm, Chair, People’s Organization for Progress
  • Daniel McCarey, Esq.
  • Aisha Mohammed, Aging People
  • Connie Palmer, Imagine, A Center for Coping with Loss
  • Richard Robinson, Chair, Criminal Justice Executive Committee, NJ NAACP State Conference
  • Hinda Winawer, Princeton Family Institute