Inmates Beg for Testing After Gov. Phil Murphy's Order Excludes 90 Percent of NJSP Population for Release

The Trentonian's Isaac Avilucea reports

TRENTON — For days, convicted murderer Peter Shanley was shuttled a half-dozen times between his cell in the west compound of New Jersey State Prison and the infirmary.

Inmates housed with Shanley in the same wing of the state’s maximum security facility told The Trentonian in recent interviews that he exhibited clear symptoms of the novel coronavirus for weeks.

They suspected he was also undergoing cancer treatment because of the medical ward they’d see him visit before the outbreak, something The Trentonian couldn’t independently confirm.


Despite the murderer's deteriorating condition, prison officials did little to try to get Shanley medical care sooner, the prisoners say.

The day Shanley was finally transported to a hospital — he was listed as dead and out of DOC custody April 7 — the wing representative, Lester Alford, found the sickened inmate shivering uncontrollably on his cell bunk. The Dumont man, convicted of savagely killing his wife in 2010, was unresponsive when Alford asked him if he was all right.

Alford notified guards of Shanley’s grave condition. Moments later, two inmates clad in prison scrubs and gloves picked up the infectious Shanley and placed him on a gurney to be hauled off to the hospital.

Inmates later learned that Shanley became the first inmate in the state to die from complications of the virus.

“What I did was tell myself I would never be another witness to a murder, either by force or by will, and that didn’t happen,” said Alford, who is serving a 50-year bid for the murder of 20-year-old Jamarl Abney. “I feel like [the state Department of Corrections] is responsible. As many times as he went to medical, they could have looked at his medical record and said, ‘Listen, the COVID-19 is attacking everyone with weak immune systems.’

“New Jersey doesn’t have a death sentence. This man was going back and forth for days, for days, with cancer, and suspected of not being tested. And then when they finally did, he died the same day. His life could have been saved. This death could have been prevented.”

Across the Garden State, more than 500 staff and corrections officers are infected with the virus and 150 inmates in prisons and halfway houses have tested positive, according to the DOC.

The virus has already claimed 29 prisoners as of Tuesday.

Worsening Conditions

With each passing day, inmates say conditions inside New Jersey State Prison worsen.

And there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight, as 90 percent of the 1,521 inmates housed there are considered violent offenders who aren't entitled to reprieve under Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive order, fashioned to stem the spread of coronavirus in the Garden State’s prison system.

Murphy’s order — announced April 10, three days after Shanley’s death — was the first step in what the DOC has called a “rolling” tiered process of identifying and releasing nearly 1,900 elderly and nonviolent inmates identified as eligible for release.

The decision came after State Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner ordered the release of 1,000 low-level inmates clogging up the county jails.

Murphy was under mounting pressure from prison reform advocates, lawyers and loved ones of inmates who demanded decisive action from the governor to save as many of the state’s more than 19,200 incarcerated people in prisons, juvenile jails and halfway houses from the virus.

He said his decision struck a balance between public health and public safety.

Since Murphy’s edict was unrolled, at least three more NJSP inmates have died of the virus. All four were at least 60 or older and one reportedly had medical issues that made him at higher risk for the virus.

NJSP prisoners identified the other COVID-19 victims as: Robert “Big Bob” Livingston, 63, Darrell Parks, 62, and Frank Silvera, 62.

Livingston, who was listed as out of DOC custody April 23, was serving a life sentence for murder. Parks, out of DOC custody April 24, was imprisoned between 30 and 70 years for murder and kidnapping. And Silvera, who was listed out of DOC custody April 13, was a convicted sex offender serving hard time for multiple sex crimes, records show.

It appears none of them would have benefited from Murphy’s order as the governor specifically excluded those serving time for serious crimes like murder and sexual assault.

Beyond the deaths, prisoners strongly suspect that the outbreak inside the prison walls is worse than the 44 staff and 16 inmates the DOC was reporting as infected in its daily tracker.

First Wave

Inmates at the capital city prison said they‘re locked in most of the day and are now eating meals in their cells. 

Social distancing is nearly impossible in tightly cramped quarters where the spread of communicable diseases is almost certain.

To combat that, the DOC said dining, rec time, religious and educational activities were suspended or modified to minimize exposure.

Inmates have been given only two masks and told to reuse them. 

“Every time someone comes to my cell and drops a tray off, I wonder if the virus is on there,” Edward Peoples, a 34-year-old man serving a bid on a murder rap, told The Trentonian in a recent interview. “Or every time someone brings hot water to my cell, I wonder if I’ve just been infected. Or if they bring me laundry to my cell, I wonder if I’m exposed that way. This is mental torture.”

Locked up since he was 21, Peoples feels like Murphy’s order is too restrictive and doesn’t provide violent offenders who have been rehabilitated a shot at freedom during the pandemic.

“We’re not being treated as we should,” he said.

Imperiled over what critics view as a slow-rolling process, DOC officials this week said that the first wave of prisoners who are older and have underlying health issues were approved for release.

Corrections commissioner Marcus Hicks green-lighted the release of 54 inmates for medical home confinement, DOC spokeswoman Liz Velez said. She said she did not know whether any of the prisoners released were from New Jersey State Prison.

Some prison reform advocates and attorneys have billed Murphy’s executive order as an exclusionary mandate that applies to only a sliver of the prison population.

Under the executive order, the DOC tasked an internal review committee with generating the lists of eligible inmates who are most at risk for complications from the virus.

Those 60 or older who are at high-risk of the virus are prioritized, along with inmates denied parole in the last year and those expected to complete sentences in the next three months.

The medical review committee has seven days to send to Hicks its recommendations about who to release, the DOC said. Officials must complete in-person home confinement checks to determine whether there is “a safe environment for the inmate and those currently in the dwelling” to reside.

Prosecutors must review the eligibility lists and contact crime victims about potential release of the perpetrators. Once the recommendations are made, the commissioner has three days to make a decision on each case, the DOC said, adding that not everyone on the lists is guaranteed release.

Prisoners approved for medical home confinement are being temporarily furloughed and will likely be required to return to prison and serve out their bids once the virus abates, officials said.

The caveats and restrictions have some prison reform advocates convinced that Murphy should have went further.

“I think he was being very politically circumspect so he wouldn’t upset the political apple cart with officers,” said Bonnie Kerness, the director for the American Friends Service Committee’s Prison Watch Program.

Kerness and her network of advocates throughout the Garden State continue to keep pressure on Murphy, who was asked this week why he chose the temporary furloughs over commuting prisoners’ sentences like what Gov. Andy Beshear did in Kentucky.

The Murphy administration insisted commuting sentences was impractical given the urgency of the pandemic.

The best-case scenario, Kerness said, is the “ultimate release of every single person who can be released.”

“I’m an abolitionist,” she said. “There are people who have to be separated from society, but they don’t have to be tortured or separated like we separate them.”

Test Us, Gov.

While some advocates demands are steep, Alford hopes the governor at least considers testing more inmates for the respiratory disease.

Known on the streets as “Teflon,” Alford is one of 984 inmates serving time for homicide at NJSP, according to state records.

He admits being involved in the January 1996 murder of Abney, a childhood friend who was killed for failing to return a borrowed gun and money, but insists he wasn’t the shooter and he’s seen the light in prison since his gangland days.

“What I stopped doing a long time ago is trying to extract myself from what we knew was going to happen,” he said.

Over the years, Alford made it a point to make his voice heard. He challenged state prison officials over his placement in solitary confinement.

While he was at East Jersey State Prison, Alford was placed in administrative segregation. Prison officials claimed they found a letter in Alford’s cell claiming a cadre of guns had been stashed in four state prisons as part of an elaborate uprising that included the planned assassination of then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker.

“Please don’t believe that,” Alford pleaded, saying it was hogwash the DOC cooked up to discredit him.

These days, Alford’s push is more tailored: Test us, governor.

After losing his sense of taste and smell and experiencing trouble breathing, Alford said he was told by a nurse that he had many hallmarks of the virus.

He was sent back to his cell with instructions to let the guards know whether his condition worsened.

Alford estimates that he is one of as many as 80 prisoners in his wing with symptoms of the virus, but prison officials appear “indifferent to our health.”

“It’s knocking us off one by one,” Alford said. “They don’t test us here. Even the guys who are symptomatic, we will not get tested unless we get 911 to the hospital. You’re falling out, sitting in your room and languishing until you’re damn near dead.”

The DOC has sparingly tested inmates. Roughly 2 percent of New Jerseyans have been tested compared with about 1 percent of the state’s prison population.

As of Tuesday, the DOC reported that 150 (77 percent) of the 196 inmates tested at all facilities were positive for the virus. Another 27 cases are still under investigation.

Only 17 inmates have been tested for the virus at NJSP, according to the DOC.

Testing is key at a place like NJSP, where Alford said most of the prison population doesn't qualify for release under Murphy’s edict.

While Murphy has not committed to testing all inmates during his news briefings, the pleas started to resonate.

Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said Tuesday that everyone locked up in the state's Juvenile Justice Commission facilities will get tested for COVID-19.

Advocates applauded the announcement after at least 20 underage offenders and 32 staff reportedly tested positive.

“This welcome announcement once again shows that advocacy works,” said Andrea McChristian, law and policy director for the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. “We know that public health crises reveal cracks in society’s foundation, and that those cracks become earthquakes in black and communities of color. The health crisis in New Jersey’s youth prisons is an unfortunate but predictable manifestation of that syndrome."

Velez, the DOC spokeswoman, said the DOC was also “exploring all options” regarding possible on-site testing at some of the hardest-hit prisons.

'Russian Roulette' 

Calling the conditions at the Trenton prison “really bad,” Emotion Blackwell, 43, another inmate locked up in Alford’s wing on a murder rap, said he also believes that he contracted the virus.

In an interview, he said he experienced symptoms for two weeks, such as fever, constant shivering, cough, decreased appetite and trouble sleeping.

It got so bad that guards called a medical code on him. All that, and he still wasn't tested.

“I’m still going through it a little bit,” he said. “I wanted them to give me some proper medical care.”

Peoples said the anxiety is high among inmates.

“Every breath you take in here is like playing Russian roulette," he said.

Michael Lasane, 41, who is serving 30 to life for murder at NJSP, said he believes state officials consider testing inmates as “futile” because the violent offenders “have to stay here anyway.”

But he urged officials to reconsider, saying many prisoners have institutional jobs that make them like essential workers on the outside.

“Sometimes the narrative blurs the facts, and I think a lot of people think we’re here and we’re just sitting around and being a burden on the state," he said. "We’re working, too, and a lot of our work is being done on behalf of the DOC.”

Lasane said he wouldn’t “self-aggrandize” and make a case for why he believes he should be released.

But he said people like Alford, who are eligible for parole in April 2024, should be given an opportunity to petition for their release.

“When you start to an executive order by saying it doesn’t apply to an entire group of people, where is the individual analysis where you’re giving the person the dignity of his individuality. It may not apply to 9 out of 10 people, but that 10th person at least deserves the ability and the dignity to make the case for himself.”

Kerness, the prison reform advocate, said prisoners shouldn’t be “discarded human beings” during the pandemic.

Peoples said the governor should find a way to release more inmates across the state.

"I’m not depraved. I’m not cold. I’m not remorseless. I’m loved, and I love," he said. "I love, hurt, and hope just like the rest of you. I’m worth saving. Gov. Phil Murphy gets on TV almost all the time and talks about us New Jerseyans as being a family. I’ve been in New Jersey my entire life. Am I included in that?”

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