"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.