Prisons may seem to some like perfect social distancing from the public, but a crowded and close-quarters prison is a potential hot spot for COVID-19.
In recognition of this, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner on March 22 ordered the temporary release of county jail inmates serving sentences of less than a year on municipal court convictions or for parole violations.
Care was taken to ensure only inmates posing the lowest risk of harm to the public were released.
Prosecutors in Atlantic County objected to the release of 14 of the 30 inmates who qualified under Rabner’s conditions, and a judge upheld three of those objections and released the rest.
In Cape May County, five of 12 objections were upheld and 21 inmates were released.
For a couple of weeks this left state prisons dealing with a surging coronavirus threat. More than 100 corrections staffers and many inmates around the state have tested positive for the coronavirus, and at least one corrections officer and one inmate have died of COVID-19.
This breeds fear and anger. Last Thursday more than 60 inmates at Southern State Correctional Facility in Cumberland’s Maurice River Township protested by blockading the access of officers to their unit, according to NJ Advance Media. The protest ended and the inmates were transferred to medical quarantine housing at nearby South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton.
The next day, Gov. Phil Murphy ordered the temporary release of qualifying nonviolent state inmates to house arrest or parole. Those whose age or health puts them at greater risk of COVID-19 are eligible.
These kinds of releases are appropriate for many reasons, which is why they are taking place across the nation, including in Pennsylvania, New York and California. No. 1 is that governments at all levels have a duty to protect the public health, including corrections officers and members of the public serving sentences for breaking the law. That requires reducing the prison population on an emergency basis.
Prisons, too, need to flatten the curve of increasing infections to give their medical care systems the best shot at handling the inevitable spread of the coronavirus in these public institutions.
The easing of sentences involved in this effort is quite modest, and whatever deterrence is lost by that easing will be more than offset by stronger awareness that future incarceration for even a nonviolent crime might place an inmate at the mercy of a fatal illness.
As it is, this pandemic is a lousy time to be getting out of jail. Former prisoners always face daunting challenges establishing a law-abiding life. Now all the usual hurdles — getting a place to live, finding a job, connecting to support services, getting to see a new health-care provider — are much higher in communities upended by COVID-19.
We suspect that the problem of new crimes committed by inmates released in this emergency will be less than the harms to the correctional community and inmate population despite these helpful reductions at state and county prisons.