Governor Murphy: Decarcerate to Flatten the COVID-19 Curve in NJ!
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39,000 individuals incarcerated in New Jersey's prisons and jails are at extreme risk of coronavirus infection. Join All of Us or None - Northern NJ in demanding that Governor Murphy flatten the curve for ALL New Jersey residents by implementing significant decarceration policies and stringent sanitary protections in prisons and jails.
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Dear Governor Murphy,
We thank you for your proactive leadership and the strategic public health measures you have put in place to flatten the COVID-19 curve in New Jersey. We are writing to express pressing concern for the thousands of individuals who are incarcerated in New Jersey’s prisons, jails, and youth facilities who have not been reached by social distancing mandates and are at high risk of infection. We implore you to take immediate action to release those who are most vulnerable to the virus, particularly the elderly, individuals with pre-existing physical and mental health conditions, pregnant people, and youth. As carceral facilities are not only places of residence but also places of work for thousands of New Jersey’s citizens, taking increased action will have a positive impact on public health for all.
We appreciate that NJDOC has implemented some measures to slow the spread of the virus inside its facilities through social distancing, distribution of masks, increased sanitation with bleach, reduced foot traffic, and suspension of medical copays. We further acknowledge the signing of Chief Justice Rabner’s order on March 22 to release individuals jailed for probation violations or low-level crimes and of Executive Order No. 124 on April 10 which grants temporary reprieve to at-risk individuals. However, at the time of writing, no one has been released from NJDOC facilities and less than 500 people have been released from county jails. Prisons, jails, and youth facilities are not equipped to respond to growing infection and death rates while continuing to provide high levels of care for those who do not become sick from COVID-19.
New Jersey has approximately 39,000 people incarcerated in prisons, jails, and youth facilities. Facilities run by the New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC) alone have 37% of incarcerated individuals over 40 years old, indicating an aging population which is more susceptible to infection. The majority of those incarcerated in New Jersey, and the United States as a whole, are people of color. Nearly 62% of people in the custody of NJDOC are identified as black, while black people make up less than 20% of New Jersey’s population. As COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted black and brown communities, we are deeply concerned about the implications for the currently incarcerated.
As a grassroots organization composed of members who have been directly impacted by the criminal justice system and their allies, we receive daily accounts of the unsafe conditions within New Jersey’s facilities. Our members’ testimonials reveal the following disturbing realities of surviving a pandemic while incarcerated:
- Correctional officers’ failure to wear masks and gloves at all times;
- Correctional officers reporting to work while potentially infected;
- Transportation of COVID-19 positive individuals between facilities;
- Inadequate virus testing for those displaying symptoms of infection;
- Insufficient provision of higher levels of medical care for those infected;
- Insufficient provision of basic medical care for those with pre-existing conditions;
- Restricted access to soap, hot water, and masks;
- Inability to maintain social distance even with the curtailment of programming;
- Limited information-sharing on infection rates and hospitalizations.
Confirming the findings of the Prison Policy Initiative, social distancing is proving impossible behind bars. To convey the urgency of the situation, we share with you the words of an individual housed in New Jersey State Prison who has been suffering from the virus:
“I have nightmares that I’m suffocating and I wake up in a panic attack. Everyone knows that the Coronavirus is in this building, but they won’t test anyone in here in order to avoid a panic and to have to acknowledge that it’s in here. Meanwhile, the nights are the worst. Have you ever burned a piece of paper, and watched as the fire took hold until the last piece as the fire goes out and the smoke sizzles into the wind? Well, that final piece is what my lungs feel like when I’m sleeping trying to hold to my last breath.” (April 10, 2020)
We encourage you to follow the professional opinion of Doctors Akiyama, Spaulding, and Rich that the best practice to flatten the COVID-19 curve is decarceration. Specifically, we advocate that you immediately undertake the following measures:
- Release all individuals housed in New Jersey’s prisons, jails, and youth facilities who are highly vulnerable to infection, particularly the elderly, individuals with pre-existing physical and mental health conditions, pregnant people, and youth.
- Release all individuals within 6 months of completing their sentence.
- Release all individuals held in pretrial detention in New Jersey’s jails.
- Assess whether all detained youth can be safely released to their homes.
- Test all incarcerated individuals for COVID-19.
- Provide timely infection prevention information and necessary sanitary equipment (masks, soap, hand sanitizer, etc.) free of charge.
We are not calling for the abdication of personal responsibility for those who have caused harm in their communities. We instead see the precarious environment in New Jersey’s prisons and jails for the human rights issue that it is. New Jersey formally abolished the death penalty in 2007. Yet, incarceration during a pandemic is a death sentence for many. It would be unjust to condemn the currently incarcerated to death by failing to implement decarceration and stringent sanitation measures with due haste.
At the beginning of this year, you signed into law the restoration of voting rights for those on probation and parole. With this act you created the opportunity for 80,000 individuals to have a voice in our democratic electoral process. While the incarcerated are still unable to vote, they remain your constituents and an integral part of the New Jersey community. They are our parents, children, spouses, and friends. We urge your compassion in their hour of need.
All of Us or None - Northern New Jersey
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