Coronavirus in Prisons? Not Yet, But Officials Halt Visits to State Inmates's Ashley Balcerzak reports

While New Jersey jails and prisons have not seen any positive cases of coronavirus as of Saturday, state prisons will now suspend all visitors to the facilities except attorneys, Department of Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks said Saturday. 

The measure was set to take effect 5 p.m. Saturday and will last 30 days. The announcement does not apply to county jails, many of which already put in stricter new policies, but Gov. Phil Murphy said that "when the state moves, it's only a matter of time before counties line up."

“We know that families are a critical support to the population and our care but we also realize that ensuring the health and safety of our inmate population, our residents, our staff and the public are paramount importance during this public health crisis," Hicks said.

Inmates will also be offered additional free phone calls, free postage, and more time at kiosks to communicate with loved ones. 

"Every crisis exposes cracks in our safety net for society's most vulnerable, and this is no exception," said Ronald Pierce, who is formerly incarcerated and a fellow at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. "Incarcerated people -- often dehumanized to begin with -- live in close quarters and sub-optimal conditions. New Jersey needs to make and adopt plans to provide care for them and all other vulnerable communities during this trying time." 

The move comes as union leaders urged the administration to protect correctional workers and its inmate population, where people live in close quarters, increasing the risk of transmission.

The New Jersey Department of Corrections said Wednesday that it would temporarily suspend volunteer and educational visits, excluding college professors leading classes for inmates. 

A union leader representing hundreds of state workers in corrections, police and parole, said Friday he did not think that policy went far enough, and urged all visits to be suspended. 

"You're bringing more people into the prisons and we understand part of prisoners' well-being is family but it's not going to be good if anybody's infected," said William Toolen, president of the The New Jersey Law Enforcement Supervisors Association, a law enforcement labor union. "You can use your imagination if it spreads all around and of course we're worried about the staff as well."

The State Policemen's Benevolent Association Local 105 also sent a letter to Hicks on Wednesday calling for all visits suspended.

"We are pleased with the decision [to halt all visits] but are disappointed it happened after we ran visits today," president William Sullivan said Saturday. "Our staff should not have been subject to potential exposure to begin with when they closed stadiums and schools. Hopefully moving forward the health and safety of our officers becomes a priority."

Earlier this week, the Department of Corrections said it would screen inmates for COVID-19 when they enter state prisons, and masked medical staff will take the temperature of anyone entering the facilities and ask about travel history and contact with people who contracted the viruses. Anyone with a fever over 100.4 would be sent home. 

New Jersey would also prepare medical quarantine sites, restrict transfer of inmates with symptoms and clean the facilities more thoroughly.

The Department of Corrections oversees around 20,000 state-sentenced inmates in 12 correctional facilities and community halfway houses.

Some county jails already started taking additional precautions. 

Every Monday and Thursday, the Morris County jail will lock all the 200 or so inmates in their cells for three hours as the facility is sanitized, said Peggy Wright, a spokeswoman for the Morris County Sheriff’s office, a procedure it began last week. The jail is also no longer allowing "contact visits," where inmates could touch visitors, such as holding hands or hugging family members or friends. 

This week, jail officials in Bergen and Essex County suspended contact visits, and Camden and Passaic County jails got rid of in-person visits altogether, switching to video conference calls. 

In Bergen County, where there are 25 presumed positive coronavirus cases according to a state tally Saturday, jail officials are still allowing visits done through a glass partition, but have canceled tours of the facility and stepped up cleaning measures. 

Bergen, Passaic, Camden and Essex jails are screening all people entering the facility for COVID-19. Anyone suspected of contracting the virus at the Passaic Jail would be moved to St. Joseph's Regional Medical Center, said Bill Maer, Passaic County Sheriff spokesman.

Bergen County would also send someone showing symptoms to a local hospital to be tested, and has increased routine inmate and detainee health screenings, said Derek Sands, chief of staff at the Bergen County Sheriff's Office. 

Those housed in the Essex County Correctional Facility who are 45 years and older or have underlying health issues are being monitored closely, said Phil Alagia, chief of staff to Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo.

County jails in Bergen, Hudson and Essex counties have contracts with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to house detained migrants, collecting a combined $78.8 million in 2018, according to a analysis.

Bergen County said ICE has not suspended the transfer of detainees to and from the jail.

ICE epidemiologists “have been tracking the outbreak, regularly updating infection prevention and control protocols, and issuing guidance to ICE Health Service Corps staff for the screening and management of potential exposure among detainees,” said an ICE spokesperson. 

ICE officials said as of March 13, no detainees in ICE custody tested positive for COVID-19. ICE suspended all social visits with detainees, and if a detainee shows symptoms, they will be placed in isolation and must wear a tight-fitting surgical mask when attending medical appointments. Asymptomatic detainees, or those with mild illness, would be placed in a "medical airborne infection isolation room" designed to contain biological agents.

"The administration must ensure that the conditions of detainees in DHS facilities are not compromised by haphazard, ineffective, or punitive quarantine policies," wrote Reps. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. and Jamie Raskin, D-Md. in a letter to acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf Wednesday, expressing concern about "severe overcrowding."

New Jersey also houses about 300 immigrant detainees in Elizabeth Detention Center, which is operated by the Tennessee private prison company CoreCivic. There are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 at any CoreCivic facilities, said Ryan Gustin, manager of public affairs at CoreCivic, on Friday. 

CoreCivic's facilities have "comprehensive emergency response plans" in order to detect and track diseases, collect and report data on people showing symptoms, and to separate sick individuals, Gustin said.

Immigrants rights groups are calling on ICE to release on parole detainees at high risk for the virus, those older than 60 or that have health complications or a weakened immune system, according to a letter to ICE sent Monday by American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and Columbia Legal Services.

And New York City public defenders went further, calling on ICE to release all people in custody at New York City-area detention facilities, stop arrests in the tri-state area, and postpone appointments for people placed under ICE supervised release. 

"We have learned through the people we represent who are incarcerated in these jails that they are not receiving basic disinfectants, soap, hand sanitizer, or even toilet paper," said the Bronx Defenders, Brooklyn Defender Services, and The Legal Aid Society, in a joint statement. "These abysmal conditions and lack of response to our inquiries underscores that the ongoing incarceration of people by ICE during the global COVID-19 pandemic is not only a policy failure but an abhorrent health crisis that must be addressed immediately."

The Delaware County Daily Times reported Saturday that a prison employee at the George W. Hill Correctional Facility tested positive for COVID-19 and 11 inmates have been placed in quarantine. The private prison company GEO Group operates the Glen Mills, Penn. prison.

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