Advocates, politicians want inmates released as prisoners test positive for COVID-19

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Bergen County Jail (Google Maps)
Urban News Staff Reports

Reports indicate that 1,000 inmates at county jails across New Jersey are being released. Inmates began being released on March 24. The New Jersey Department of Corrections reports three inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 and are being treated. Two corrections officers tested positive for the virus.

More than 1,000 people are calling for the release of immigrants held in ICE custody at New Jersey county jails in a petition sent to Bergen, Essex and Hudson county officials, with a copy sent to the ICE Newark Field Office. 

Make the Road New Jersey members with detained family in these jails also released a video urging the release of detainees for public safety during COVID-19.

As more than 4,000 individuals test positive for COVID-19 in New Jersey, there are now multiple confirmed cases of coronavirus at the county jails in Bergen, Hudson, and Essex, including an ICE detainee at Bergen County jail. Over the past week, immigrant detainees at each jail have gone on hunger strike to demand release.

“I have a loved one currently in ICE custody at the Essex County Jail and every day I am fearful that he will test positive for COVID-19 and not have the proper medical attention. I am very worried about his health and his safety if he gets sick. I don't think he will get adequate medical care. For all of our safety in New Jersey, we must release detainees to be home with their loved ones.” said Laura, member of Make the Road NJ.

The petition urges Bergen, Essex and Hudson County Officials and the Newark ICE Field Office to “immediately address the unique threat which COVID-19 represents for those detained in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody and to push for the release of all individuals detained in ICE custody.”

U.S. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), both members of the Judiciary Committee, recently introduced a bill aimed at the large federal prison population that is particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Congressman Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), will introduce companion legislation in the House of Representatives this week.

The Emergency Community Supervision Act of 2020 would immediately place vulnerable individuals – those who are pregnant, those with underlying health issues, and those who are age 50 or older – in community supervision outside of prison, unless they pose a violent threat to the community.

“For thousands of people behind bars, contracting COVID-19 is tantamount to a death sentence,” Booker said. “Those in prison and jail tend to have much higher rates of underlying health issues than the general public, and the conditions of confinement make social distancing virtually impossible. We have an obligation to do everything we can to prevent the spread of this deadly disease, and that means moving certain incarcerated people to community supervision when they don’t pose a violent threat to our communities and are facing high risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19.”

According to the bill, the following individuals behind bars would be eligible for immediate placement in community supervision:
  • Pregnant individuals (seven percent of women in federal prison are pregnant)
  • Individuals with diabetes
  • Individuals with congestive heart failure or coronary artery disease
  • Individuals with chronic lung disease or asthma
  • Individuals with other immune system deficiencies, such as HIV, sickle cell anemia, or cancer
  • Individuals who are 50 years of age or older (approx. 33,000 individuals behind bars are age 50 or older; approx. 26,000 are age 50 or older and are nonviolent offenders)
Individuals who have 12 months or less to serve on their sentence

The bill also would limit the use of pre-trial detention unless the person is a flight risk or a violent threat. And it would limit the use of in-person supervised release where appropriate, as well as the use of incarceration for technical violations for supervised release violation.

The law would expire 60 days following the end date of the current national emergency.

In light of the public health threat to incarcerated youth during the COVID-19 pandemic, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice (NJISJ) and its partners in the 150 Years is Enough campaign today asked Gov. Murphy to halt new admissions to juvenile detention in New Jersey, and to remove currently incarcerated youth from detention facilities.

The Institute, Salvation & Social Justice, and the NAACP New Jersey State Conference told the Governor that, “Research by health care experts shows that incarcerated populations are most at risk during a public health crisis. COVID-19 spread quickly in enclosed spaces such as cruise ships and nursing homes and it will spread just as quickly in detention centers, prisons, and jails.”

The letter also stated, “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.”

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