High rates of COVID-19 in prisons prompted the state to let thousands out of custody.

This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit njspotlight.com.

New Jersey released thousands of people from prisons Wednesday to try to reduce the spread of the coronavirus in corrections facilities, but questions remained about the state’s ability to support the public health needs of this vulnerable population.

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The state Department of Corrections planned to release nearly 2,300 inmates — including nearly a dozen who have tested positive for COVID-19 — over the course of the day under a law Gov. Phil Murphy signed in October. Close to 1,200 more prisoners will be returned to the community in coming weeks, DOC said.

The historic program — the only one of its kind nationwide — is open to nonviolent offenders near the end of their sentences and provided individuals who had served prison terms during the pandemic with “credit” toward an early release date.

State officials said the release was coordinated with local officials, nonprofit service providers and faith-based organizations to ensure individuals leaving prison or halfway houses were supported in their re-entry into the community. The goal is “to make sure that folks aren’t just thrown out into the ether,” Murphy said Tuesday night.

Former Gov. Jim McGreevey, a prominent advocate for prisoner rights who now leads the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, said Wednesday the process had proceeded “better than expected.” He called it a “daunting challenge that was largely successful.”

McGreevey said re-entry partners around the state pulled together in recent weeks to support the state’s release, working with the DOC and other departments to try to secure specific resources for each individual leaving custody: federal food stamp benefits; general assistance or welfare support, which is connected to housing subsidies; a Medicaid card; access to medical treatment, including for substance use and mental health needs; and employment training. Individuals also need a government-issued ID card other then their prison identification, he said.

“It was a greater synergy (among partners) that would accompany a single release” of an individual prisoner, McGreevey said of the rollout. “It brought many more partners together with a directed focus.”

Applying for benefits

Despite these successes, McGreevey and others said it remains unknown how well these systems will function to support former inmates as they begin their new lives outside prison during an unprecedented pandemic and the accompanying economic downturn. Applying for benefits is one thing, he said, but ensuring they are “turned on for use” requires coordination among multiple agencies and can take time.

Pamela Valera, an assistant professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health who has studied re-entry supports for years, said the initial weeks after an individual is released are particularly critical. Former prisoners — some of whom may have served decades — are vulnerable and their mental and physical health depends on access to “wraparound services … to help them succeed and stay home,” she said.

“While I believe that we have the reentry system to support people who are being released today from New Jersey prisons, all of these efforts are happening while COVID-19 infection cases are surging in predominant communities of color,” Valera said in an email Wednesday. She urged the state to form a task force made up of those directly involved in re-entry to guide the release program.

The demographics of prison populations could also impact the release program, underscoring the need for a comprehensive support system, research suggests.

McGreevey said roughly three out of four inmates have historically struggled with addiction issues; more than half face mental health challenges, and 40% have hepatitis C, a blood disease often connected to HIV/AIDS or intravenous drug use. Chronic health conditions like asthma and diabetes, which increase the likelihood of death from other diseases, are also common in prison populations, research shows.

In addition, the state’s prison population is predominantly made up of Black and brown individuals, racial groups that have high rates of certain chronic disease — like heart disease and diabetes — and have suffered a disproportionate impact under the pandemic. According to the state, more than half of those released will be returning home to five counties with urban communities particularly hard-hit by COVID-19.

Months of pressure on Murphy administration

The law Murphy signed last month to prompt the release was one of several measures he approved after facing months of pressure from social justice advocates to reduce the state’s prison population and improve conditions for those who remained incarcerated. Critics have also faulted the administration’s efforts to protect inmates from COVID-19, which they said were slow to start and allowed the virus to spread.

Since March, the DOC has reported more than 3,700 positive COVID-19 cases among employees and inmates, including 52 deaths. Nearly 18,500 individuals live in state prisons and halfway house sites, not including those locked in county or local jails or federal prisons, which have also seen case spikes. In all, some 245,000 New Jerseyans have been diagnosed with the virus, including more than 16,300 who have died.

According to DOC, 11 of the 2,261 prisoners slated for release Wednesday had been diagnosed with the coronavirus. An internal memo obtained by Sen. Mike Testa (R-Cape May) outlined the infection-protection protocols staff must follow while transporting these individuals and suggested some prisoners might be dropped off at public bus or train stations for the final leg of their journey home. Testa criticized the policy and suggested it would contribute to community spread of the virus.

DOC spokesperson Liz Velez said the individuals with COVID-19 are not being taken to public transportation facilities, but will be driven directly to their next residence. In some cases, this is a medical facility, while others may live with family. All prisoners will get masks and other resources to help reduce the spread of the virus, she said.

Velez said corrections officials met with each individual before they left to provide referrals to community support services, including emergency shelter if needed. The state is also providing a food stipend, food packages and other emergency funds to those in need, she said.

“We’ve partnered with stakeholders across various agencies, direct service providers and nonprofits to ensure no rock is left unturned with the ultimate goal to ensure these individuals have the tools needed to succeed, breaking the cycle of incarceration and maintaining the state’s low recidivism rates,” Velez said.

DOC did not respond to questions Wednesday about efforts to enroll the released prisoners in Medicaid or connect them with medical providers. Also unknown was whether state officials alerted contact tracers working with local health departments to contain the spread of the virus to the arrival of the 11 individuals with COVID-19 diagnoses. Valera, with Rutgers, said the state should also provide cell phones to individuals so that they can stay in touch with health care providers and support networks.

McGreevey said the Reentry Corporation has worked to connect the newly-released individuals with health care services by partnering with Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark, Federally Qualified Health Centers around the state, and other federally funded programs designed to provide coordinated care for those with substance use disorders.

“All of these people will be seen by a physician,” McGreevey said. He praised officials at the state Department of Human Services, which oversees Medicaid, who helped enroll up to 60% of these former inmates in the subsidized insurance program before they left prison. “We are working to make these linkages,” he said.

To read this article in the original format, click: Prisoner release raises concerns about their health during pandemic