Graphic via Shutterstock/Courier Coronavirus Outbreak Jails
Graphic via Shutterstock/Courier

Other states and counties are making similar decisions to release certain inmates, indicating a growing acknowledgement that prisons and jails are a petri dish for the coronavirus to spread.

Hundreds of low-level inmates being held in New Jersey jails will be temporarily released as the state works to limit the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court, Stuart Rabner, signed an order on Sunday allowing inmates in county jails to be released by 6 a.m. on Tuesday. Rabner’s order comes after the ACLU and the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender petitioned the court to release the inmates, arguing keeping them in jails posed a public health threat.

Two inmates in the Hudson County Jail and one inmate at an Essex County detention center have tested positive for COVID-19, while a correctional officer at a jail in Hackensack also tested positive. Inmates who’ve tested positive will remain in custody until a plan for mandatory isolation or self-quarantine is approved.

Two classes of inmates will be released Tuesday: those serving jail sentences as a condition of probation and those serving time from a municipal court conviction. Those in jail for violating probation or committing low-level crimes, such as petty disorderly persons offenses or fourth degree crimes, will be released by noon Thursday. Inmates charged with more serious crimes will not be released under the order. 

The order does not commute sentences, but rather suspends inmates’ sentences until after the coronavirus pandemic has ended. Prosecutors can also challenge the release of specific individuals if they believe the individuals pose significant risks to themselves or public safety. 

In total, as many as 1,000 inmates will be released, according to the ACLU, which praised the order. 

“Unprecedented times call for rethinking the normal way of doing things, and in this case it means releasing people who pose little risk to their communities for the sake of public health and the dignity of people who are incarcerated,” ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Singha said in a statement.

“Unprecedented times call for rethinking the normal way of doing things, and in this case it means releasing people who pose little risk to their communities for the sake of public health and the dignity of people who are incarcerated.”

New Jersey’s decision is believed to be the most sweeping statewide effort to address concerns about the coronavirus spreading among inmates, but follows similar efforts made by other states and counties. Mecklenburg County in North Carolina, Salt Lake County in Utah, and Alameda County and Los Angeles County in California have all begun releasing hundreds of inmates. 

These decisions reflect a growing acknowledgement that prisons and jails, with their cramped quarters, are a petri dish for the coronavirus to spread. In recent days, several prison systems have reported cases of the coronavirus within their populations. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the largest state prison system in the nation, announced Sunday that an inmate at California State Prison-Los Angeles County tested positive for COVID-19.

New York City in particular has seen an explosion of cases in its jail system, with 60 inmates or jail employees testing positive for the coronavirus as of Monday afternoon, with the bulk of the cases occurring at Rikers Island. Mayor Bill de Blasio authorized the release of 40 city inmates from Rikers on Friday, but the city’s Board of Corrections said that number was “far from sufficient to protect against the rapid spread of coronavirus in the jails.” De Blasio later approved the release of 35 more inmates on Sunday and Monday, with another 200 cases under review. 

That the coronavirus has spread to jails and prisons is not a surprise.

“It seems inevitable that either a prisoner or a staff member is going to become infected,” Amy Fettig, deputy director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project and director of the organization’s Stop Solitary campaign, told COURIER earlier this month.

RELATED: Coronavirus Could Wreak Havoc in U.S. Prisons and Jails

“The healthcare system in these institutions often are very, very broken and provide unconstitutional levels of care,” Fettig said. “These institutions have a lot of people who have compromised health, a lot of people with chronic care issues, a lot of people with poor health care, with serious diseases that aren’t being treated adequately or accurately by the prison medical care system.”

There are an estimated 2.3 million people locked up in jails and prisons across the United States, but despite the rising number of confirmed cases in correctional facilities, most states are opting not to release inmates. In Georgia, three prisoners tested positive for the virus last week, but state officials have declined to release any inmates. Some states, including California, are taking other measures, such as limiting visitors from entering prisons and providing hand sanitizer and soap to inmates. Other states, such as Arizona and Minnesota, have waived copays charged to inmates for medical visits and fees levied for personal hygiene supplies. 

But advocates continue to call for the release of inmates. In a series of March 18 letters to federal and local officials, the ACLU called for the immediate release from prisons and jails of communities identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as vulnerable, such as those over the age of 65 and those with a terminal medical illness or chronic or debilitating medical conditions. 

The ACLU also asked governors to grant commutations to vulnerable individuals whose sentences would end in the next two years, called on police to end arrests for minor offenses, and prosecutors to avoid cash bail requests and release most suspects from pretrial detention.

“Public health experts recognize that there is a heightened risk of infection for people who are involved in the criminal legal system, and that downsizing the footprint of the criminal legal system should be a part of the COVID-19 public health response,” Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU’s Justice Division, said in a statement.

Inmates themselves have also expressed concerns. Christopher Blackwell and Arthur Longworth, inmates at a Washington State prison, wrote about their fears for BuzzFeed.

“Everyone in the cell block is speculating about what will happen when one of us shows signs of infection,” Longworth wrote. “The consensus among those who’ve been around longest is that guards in hazmat suits will take us to the Hole [solitary confinement]…But of course, we all know what that means: The prospect of the Hole is likely to preclude people from volunteering to report symptoms.”

Such a reluctance to report symptoms could further contribute to the spread of the virus, which is exactly what advocates want to prevent. It remains to be seen if more states and cities follow in New Jersey’s footsteps, but ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Singha certainly hopes they do.

“This is truly a landmark agreement,” he said of the order in New Jersey, adding that it was “one that should be held up for all states dealing with the current public health crisis.