Stuck In Jail During A Pandemic: Coronavirus Hits NJ Prisons's Eric Kiefer reports

ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — When federal ICE detainees go on a hunger strike, they have 72 hours before they're sent to the prison's medical department. There, staff begin working their way through a laundry list of procedures, and may take drastic steps if the situation becomes dire – including holding inmates down and feeding them through tubes.

But according to prisoners and civil rights advocates in New Jersey, the fear of a force-feeding session is small potatoes when compared to the possibility of dying in jail from the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

On Sunday night – amid reports of hunger strikes and confirmed COVID-19 cases at several jails in the state – state Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner signed an order calling for the temporary release of up to 1,000 inmates in county jails as a way to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

According to spokespeople with the New Jersey Court system:

"The order commutes or suspends county jail sentences currently being served by county jail inmates either as a condition of probation for an indicatable offense or because of a municipal court conviction. It directs their release no later than 6 a.m. on Tuesday."

Under the order, other inmates serving a county jail sentence will be released by no later than noon on Thursday, March 26, court spokespeople said.

The state attorney general and county prosecutors can file an objection to any release they deem "inappropriate." In those cases, judges or special masters will hold a hearing to determine if the release would pose a significant risk to the safety of the inmate or the public.

The order would impact only those in jail for third- or fourth-degree crimes or disorderly persons offenses. It does not affect state prison sentences.

At the conclusion of the public health emergency, those released from jail will appear before the court to determine whether their custodial sentences should be reinstated or commuted. No-contact orders, drivers' license suspensions and other conditions will remain in force, court spokespeople said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) praised Sunday's consent order, calling it a watershed deal that demonstrates the Garden State's compassion for its most vulnerable residents.

"This is truly a landmark agreement, and one that should be held up for all states dealing with the current public health crisis," ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha said. "It shows the strength of New Jersey – that when a crisis hits, we can work together to weather through with justice and humanity."

"This is not a blanket get-out-jail-free card," a spokeswoman for the Office of the Public Defender previously told "Most of these people aren't criminals – they're people accused of crimes. These are people who are innocent until proven otherwise. And we're talking about a very specific set of categories: non-violent offenders who are going to get probation anyway."

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal addressed the consent order during a press conference on Monday. (See video at bottom of this article)

New Jersey has recorded 2,844 confirmed cases and 27 deaths from the new coronavirus known as COVID-19 as of Monday afternoon. 


The new coronavirus has already begun digging a foothold at prisons throughout New Jersey.

On Monday, authorities announced that an officer at the Morris County Correctional Facility has tested positive for COVID-19. The officer has self-isolated and special cleaning has been done in that section of the prison.

On Sunday, Essex County administrators were notified by the GEO Group that an inmate at Delaney Hall in Newark has tested positive for COVID-19. The inmate, who is exhibiting symptoms of the virus, has been isolated from the general population at Delaney Hall. He's "responding well" to medical treatment, officials said.

The seven other inmates who were housed in the same dorm have been quarantined at Delaney Hall. None are exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 as of Sunday evening, officials said.

On Tuesday, administrators at the Essex County Correctional Facility were notified that a superior officer at the ECCF has tested positive for COVID-19. That staff member has not been at the facility since March 16.

At Bergen County Jail, authorities said 15 inmates were placed in quarantine as a precautionary measure after a corrections officer tested positive for the virus. Seven other corrections officers were told to self-quarantine, reported on Sunday.

On Friday, officials confirmed that a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) employee at the Elizabeth Detention Center – one of several prisons in the state that contracts to hold immigrant detainees – tested positive for the new coronavirus.

"A member of the medical administrative staff of ICE Health Service Corps at the Elizabeth Detention Center, who was under self-quarantine, has tested positive for COVID-19," an ICE spokesperson said. "The staff member is currently receiving treatment."

As of Friday, no ICE detainees or other staff were symptomatic for the coronavirus at the Elizabeth Detention Center, officials said.

At the Hudson County Correctional Facility in Kearny, which houses a mix of inmates and federal immigration detainees, two inmates tested positive for COVID-19, authorities reported Sunday.

Officials stated:

"Both inmates have been quarantined on site. No detainees or staff positive. Facility will be on COVID-19 protocol for 14 days which will include modified lock-down, daily temperature taking of staff, inmates and detainees, sanitizing of entire complex, case tracing. Detainees provided with computer tablets in their cells to stay in contact with loved ones and will have their individual accounts funded to allow them to buy items from commissary as they may not be able to receive funds now from family and friends."


As the fear of coronavirus spreads throughout the prison system in New Jersey, some inmates have been holding hunger strikes and demanding that officials release them to their families.

Earlier this week, a coalition of public defenders announced that incarcerated immigrants have organized hunger strikes at the Hudson County Correctional Facility and the Essex County Correctional Facility in Newark, which also contracts with ICE to house federal detainees.

The hunger strike in Hudson County began on Friday; the strike in Essex County was launched on March 17. At least 50 people in multiple housing units are taking part in the protests, and have been demanding their immediate release on bond or supervised release.

"If we get sick, at least we'd be able to be with our families before we die," a 55-year-old father of two told Gothamist/WNYC.

According to the groups – The Legal Aid Society, Brooklyn Defender Services and The Bronx Defenders – the inmates are rallying against "egregious conditions" and inaction by ICE to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"Among reports of egregious conditions, we have heard that ICE is not responding to medical sick calls and that there are sick people in units who are not being treated or tested," the coalition alleged.

The groups shared testimony that they said comes directly from the mouths of detainees at Hudson County Correctional Facility:

  • "Ever since one person on our old block had symptoms, the medical staff refuses to see us because they are afraid of infecting themselves with the virus. Even those of us with diabetes, they are not calling us to take our insulin. We make requests but they do not respond."
  • "The hygiene is extremely dirty. There is no control. If you could see how we live you would be disgusted. The showers are so dirty it makes you not want to wash."
  • "Each cell does not have enough materials to disinfect. There is bacteria everywhere."
  • "In the same cell is the toilet and you have to eat in the same place. With two people to a cell, when the other person is using the bathroom you have to smell them. It's disgusting."

Since being moved to new cells in response to the coronavirus, detainees have also been reporting other problems, the coalition charged.

"On Monday when they moved us to the new cell block, the beds were missing mattresses," one inmate said. "We slept on the hard metal of the bed for three days until they brought mattresses. Now the mattresses they brought are very hard, and they are giving people body pain."

There have also been accusations about intimidation against the inmates who complain about their living conditions.

Democratic Socialist of America member Karl Schwartz alleged that some leaders of the hunger strike at the Essex County Correctional Facility have since been placed in solitary confinement. And attorneys who represent detainees at the Hudson and Essex County facilities say inmates are reporting threats and intimidation by guards when they're heard discussing conditions on the phone, reported.

Gothamist/WNYC published a note that inmates passed around the Essex County Correctional Facility about the hunger strike. It partly reads:

"We are asking our fellow brothers in ICE to join us. We are also asking the kitchen workers that work in the main kitchen downstairs to not go to work. The point of this is to ask for release… This coronavirus is getting out of control and if we were to be infected I am sure everyone would rather die on the outside with our families than in here... I hope you will join us because there is power in numbers and this is a fight not only for our freedom but also for our health and safety."


"ICE must release all immigrants in detention to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in New Jersey," urged Deya Aldana, a member of Elizabeth-based immigrant rights organization Make the Road New Jersey.

"Detention is inhumane and unsafe, and ICE is ill-equipped to provide adequate care and ensure the safety of detainees," Aldana said. "In addition, ICE must cease all enforcement activities in New Jersey… no one should fear deportation when they go to the hospital or seek medical care."

Members of New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice (NJAIJ) pointed out that there is no way to practice "social distancing" when you're stuck behind bars.

"There have been egregious violations at these facilities, including lack of basic access to health care, concern for people's well-being, and even lack of access to basic sanitary supplies," NJAIJ Director Johanna Calle said. "These facilities do not allow individuals to practice self-isolation."

"Dating back to the 19th century, county officials have had broad powers to protect public health," said Eric Lerner, a member of the Jobs and Equal Rights Campaign. "They must use those powers now to release all immigrant detainees and non-violent offenders from their county jails."

An online petition to "release ICE detainees in New Jersey" has gained more than 700 signatures as of Monday.

It's not just immigrant detainees who deserve protection from the coronavirus, advocates say.

In a March 19 letter to Gov. Phil Murphy, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice (NJISJ) implored him to halt new admissions to juvenile detention in New Jersey and to remove currently incarcerated youth from detention facilities.

"As states across the country undertake steps to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus, closing schools, canceling events, and shifting to supporting children in their homes and communities, one group of young people is being left behind: the nearly 50,000 youth in custody in the United States," the NJISJ wrote.

The nonprofit continued:

"While New Jersey has canceled visits for youths' families, we believe that this is not a time for youth to be separated from their families. This will only exacerbate mental health issues and further isolate youth. Further, youth detention and correctional facilities are unlikely equipped to meet the medical needs of youth if a COVID-19 outbreak inside juvenile detention or correctional facility should occur."


The coronavirus has also caused prisons throughout New Jersey to change their visitation policies.

Last week, the New Jersey Department of Corrections announced it will be temporarily suspending visits during the outbreak. Legal visits won't be impacted, and prisons will be expanding other avenues of communication for inmates, such as free phone calls and free postage.

Similar policy changes have been rolled out on the county level, as well. Earlier this month, the visitation schedule at the Essex County Correctional Facility was modified, and additional measures to medically screen detainees entering and being released from the prison were implemented.

On March 15, the New Jersey Juvenile Justice Commission (JJC) temporarily suspended visits for the next 30 days to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

"In an effort to mitigate the impact of this temporary measure, the JJC is increasing access to other forms of communication with families, including expanding access to additional phone calls, free-of-charge, and expanding access to video visits," officials said.

Visits related to legal representation are not impacted by the suspension, JJC officials said.


The New Jersey Reentry Corporation has launched a fundraiser for former inmates who have COVID-19 symptoms and are in desperate need of shelter and food.

Checks can be sent to the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, Attn: Finance Department, COVID-19, 9 Basin Drive, Suite 190, Kearny, New Jersey, 07032.

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