PATERSON, NJ – A total of 40 inmates at Passaic County Jail are temporarily free as part of the state’s efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19, according to authorities.

Though the March 22 state Supreme Court orderpdf, which led to the release of more than 700 low-risk county jail detainees across New Jersey, has drawn praise from civil rights advocates, it’s also raised concerns about the health and safety of thousands who remain incarcerated. 

It has also been criticized by a few New Jersey lawmakers, as well as members of the law enforcement community, who believe the state should have explored other options. New Jersey State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal has reiterated the order was the best of bad options.

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“I take no pleasure in temporarily releasing or suspending county jail sentences,” Grewal said during a recent press conference. “But, this is the most significant public health crisis we've faced in our state’s history. And, it’s forcing us to take actions that we wouldn’t consider during normal times.”

"We know, and we've seen across the river that jails can be incubators for disease," he said. "So, we have to take bold and drastic steps."

As of Tuesday, the Garden State has 18,696 confirmed coronavirus cases and 267 virus-related deaths. Within Passaic County, there are 1,294 cases, Gov. Phil Murphy reported during his daily media briefing. Data made public by the City of Paterson shows 376 confirmed COVID-19 cases locally.

“At some point, God willing sooner than later, we will break the back of this damn virus. We will flatten that curve,” the governor said.

Once the COVID-19 pandemic has waned, released inmates will likely have to return to prison to serve remaining time or go before a judge to see if their sentences can be commuted.

According to the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender, inmates were encouraged to self-quarantine for 14 days, whether or not they have symptoms. They were also given information about coronavirus and the governor’s orders.

Jennifer Sellitti, a spokeswoman for the office, said, “Any conditions imposed by the trial court remain in full force and effect. Any no-contact provisions or license suspensions also remain in effect. As with anyone, a person who breaks the law will face legal consequences.”

Under the order, county prosecutors have the ability to challenge the release of inmates if they can prove there would be public safety risks if the individual was freed. Hearings will be ongoing to determine if those inmates will be released.

According to the state Public Defender’s Office, 44 Passaic County Jail inmates were eligible for release. Prosecutors objected to half of those and 12 cases are pending.

The inmates released last week, locked up as part of probation sentences or municipal court convictions, are just a small portion of New Jersey’s jail population, Paterson-based activist Casey Melvin pointed out.

“I have to honestly give credit to those who have pushed the envelope for government and the Department of Justice to take a close look at the health and safety of the 18,000-plus individuals presently incarcerated,” Melvin said.

“This population, to me, on an overall extent has been, for quite some time, excluded from mainstream society’s list of ‘people we should care for and be concerned about,’” he said.

It “sends a message that some of the cries of social justice and prison reform advocates have been answered,” Melvin said. The decision also shows that officials “are concerned” and implementing “a preventative measure in not only reducing a possible liability, but taking into account the health and well-being of the inmate population and those who are employed in that environment,” he added.

New Jersey’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union praised the order, calling it a “landmark agreement” that had been negotiated by the state and criminal justice stakeholders. It also sets an example “for all states dealing with the current public health crisis,” the organization said. 

In a statement, ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha said, “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.”

Sinha added: “It shows the strength of New Jersey – that when a crisis hits, we can work together to weather through with justice and humanity. We also hope that the principles guiding this agreement – compassion, dignity, looking out for all people’s well-being – will play a larger role in criminal justice once this crisis abates.”

Not everyone is on board with the temporary release.

Monmouth County Sheriff Shaun Golden called it “absurd.”

"It is absurd that this court order to release inmates includes cases such as failure to register as a sex offender, child endangerment, resisting arrest/assault on our law enforcement officers with no regard for the victims," Golden wrote on his Facebook page, adding that there are no known COVID-19 cases in the Monmouth County Correctional Facility. "Is this really about preventing an outbreak in our jail."

New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner’s order comes as staff and inmates in jails across the state test positive for coronavirus and officials look to head off a possible outbreak behind bars.

Of the 163 reported cases among New Jersey’s law enforcement community, three officers are from the Passaic County Sheriff’s Office, according to spokesman Bill Maer.

According to John Welsh, president of PBA Local 197, the officers who tested positive are doing well. “My concern right now is for the safety and well-being of my members and their families. We will all eventually get through this and business back to usual,” he said.

Within the inmate population, corrections officials have said no prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19, though some inmates have been quarantined.

Melvin said, “Having a lot of close friends and family members incarcerated, I am highly concerned about their mental and physical health. The thought of possibly getting ill and dying as the result of an undetectable virus can create all types of depression, anxiety, paranoia and psychosis.”

Melvin went on to express concern over the quality of medical care an inmate would receive, if he or she became infected.

“To me, it’s like being locked in a closet while the houses around you are catching fire and this fire cannot be extinguished only contained. So while you hear these fires burning and getting closer you can't help but to wonder if that will happen when it hits my building, and ‘how will I get out? And will I get treated if I get burned?’”, Melvin said. “This health crisis has me highly concerned about the health and safety of those behind bars.”

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