N.J. prisons get so-so grade on pandemic response — but still the best in the U.S.

By: - September 1, 2021 7:00 am

New Jersey is one of only eight states not to receive a failing grade from researchers studying COVID-19 among inmates. (Photo by Dana DiFilippo/New Jersey Monitor)

A civil rights group that graded prisons nationwide on how they handled the COVID-19 pandemic gave New Jersey a ‘C’ — and blasted the response of correctional facilities around the country as “a shameful failure.”

New Jersey’s mediocre grade was the best in a bad showing by all states, which are “failing on even the simplest measures of mitigation” to contain a virus that has claimed more than 2,700 lives behind bars and infected 1 out of every 3 people inmates nationally, researchers wrote in a report released Wednesday.

The Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit think tank, weighed several factors in grading states, including whether prisons:

  • Reduced inmate populations
  • Facilitated earlier releases
  • Reported lower COVID-19 infection and death rates among inmates than those of the statewide general population
  • Vaccinated inmates
  • Changed policy to support pandemic-related precautions and needs

“While some states performed well on one or two of these criteria, no state’s response to COVID-19 in prison has been sufficient,” wrote the report’s authors, Tiana Herring and Maanas Sharma.

As a whole, the nation’s response to the pandemic behind bars has been a shameful failure.

– Prison Policy Initiative researchers

California ranked second behind New Jersey, with a C minus. Six states got a grade of D, while 42 states got a failing grade.

New Jersey upped its grade from last year, when it got an F+. At that point in the pandemic, the state fielded widespread criticism for its slow response in controlling the coronavirus among inmates, contributing to one of the highest COVID-related infection and death rates behind bars in the country.

In October, lawmakers passed one of the first bills in the United States to reduce sentences and release inmates because of the pandemic. Then, Democratic Gov. Murphy credited that strategy with helping the state curb its coronavirus spread behind bars.

“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, adding that releasing thousands of inmates “has allowed for critical social distancing as part of the fight against COVID-19.”

Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections welcomed the report’s recognition, saying they continue to tweak their pandemic response as new threats like the Delta variant arise. With the pandemic ongoing, spokeswoman Liz Velez said the prisons continue to educate inmates and staff about vaccines, hold pop-up vaccine clinics behind bars, and offer incentives for participation. They also will continue posting COVID-19 infection, testing, vaccine, and death data for inmates and staff online to ensure transparency.

“We understand the responsibility we have to safeguard those within our walls and that the battle with the virus is far from over,” Velez said.

The inmate releases haven’t come without controversy, with three inmates freed early now accused of murdering people after their release. One was charged in a South Jersey homicide that happened just two days after he left prison. Another, from Delran, allegedly gunned down two people at a January birthday party in Burlington County. And a third, from Asbury Park, was arrested in an Aug. 21 double slaying in New Hampshire.

“Awarding early release to prisoners because of COVID is counterproductive to the deterrent effect of punishment,” Assemblyman Christopher DePhillips (R-Bergen) said in a statement earlier this month.

‘A shameful failure’

Researchers said the large-scale release, which freed over 2,000 people, was a big reason New Jersey saw its grade rise from last year. New Jersey also is one of the few states nationwide to vaccinate most of its inmates, with 89% inoculated, the report says.

One area New Jersey fell short — as did most other states — was shrinking its prison population by reducing the number of people admitted for technical violations of probation and parole, according to the report. A technical violation is when someone fails to comply with the conditions of their probation or parole, like missing a curfew or failing to report a change of address. It is not a new crime.

The researchers reviewed state and federal lockups, but not county or local jails. In New Jersey, 12,042 people were incarcerated in state prisons as of Monday, according to the state Department of Corrections. Two federal prisons in New Jersey — Fort Dix and Fairton  — held 3,754 inmates as of last week, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons.

A Bureau of Prisons spokesman declined to comment on the report.

Nationwide, crowded conditions in correctional facilities helped the coronavirus spread easily, the report charges. The Prison Policy Initiative opposes mass incarceration.

“As a whole, the nation’s response to the pandemic behind bars has been a shameful failure,” researchers wrote. “Even New Jersey and California, which scored higher than the other 49 prison systems, did not do enough to mitigate COVID-19.”

The 42% infection rate in New Jersey’s prisons was 3.8 times higher than the statewide COVID-19 infection rate of 11%, while prison inmates were almost twice as likely as the rest of the population to die of the virus, the report notes.

The pandemic offered lessons in what prisons should do now, if they haven’t already, to improve the system, researchers said. That includes creating detailed emergency response plans; publicly publishing data on cases, testing, vaccines, and deaths to ensure accountability and inform inmates’ families; and reduce crowding, which contributes to increased violence behind bars, reduced visitation, inadequate health care, and limited programming and educational opportunities.

“As states continue to address the pandemic, allowing prison populations to creep back up to their unjust, unsustainable prior levels should not be part of the return to ‘normalcy,'” researchers said.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.