COVID ravaged NJ prisons. Officials are working on a vaccination plan. Is it soon enough?
Coronavirus cases within New Jersey prisons are climbing again as state officials are making their plan to vaccinate more than 12,100 inmates and the thousands of staff that come and go each day.
Garden State prisons got hammered by the virus, giving the state the unwanted distinction of the highest prison death rate in the country. And with the first vaccines delivered to the state last week, officials are figuring out where prison inmates fit in the rollout plan.
Gov. Phil Murphy said Wednesday that they would be in phase 1B, after the state's about 650,000 front-line health care workers and certain long-term care facility residents.
That phase includes several other vulnerable populations, such as first responders, essential workers and anyone older than 65 or with underlying medical conditions, for a total of about 3.7 million people, according to the state's vaccination plan.
Exactly where inmates and prison staff will fall in that group is not yet clear, and officials have said, given the limited availability of vaccines, that plans are preliminary and subject to change.
Murphy said there was a "supply and demand issue" now, but that could be resolved in the coming weeks.
The state received its first doses of the Pfizer vaccine on Tuesday, and is counting on doses arriving from Moderna, which got federal approval Friday.
What we know so far
The state Department of Health is working with the Department of Corrections to "determine their needs and identify the best approach to make a vaccine available to the staff and incarcerated populations," a spokeswoman for the Health Department said, adding that there was no projected start date for the vaccination campaign.
Vaccines for staff and inmates will be voluntary, according to the Health Department, and state officials are determining whether all facilities will get the vaccine at once or whether they will be rolled out prison by prison.
Advocates who were among the most critical of the state's handling of the virus in prisons, in particular the initial lack of testing and what they saw as lethargy when it came to releasing people, said they had not been informed of the state's vaccination plan.
But all hoped prisons would be a priority, given the toll inside state-run facilities.
"They are obviously at some of the highest risk of anybody in our society," said J. Amos Caley, pastor at the Reformed Church of Highland Park and an organizer of the reform group New Jersey Prison Justice Watch. “I believe that all people who are living or working in these closed spaces ought to be given the opportunity for the vaccine.”
At least 38 states have identified prison populations as priority groups for vaccination, according to a review of 48 states' plans by the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonpartisan criminal justice reform group.
The group has promoted prison population reduction as the best way to lower the risk of coronavirus infection in incarcerated settings.
New Jersey's goal is to immunize 70% of its adult population, or 4.7 million people, within six months of vaccine approval, requiring tens of thousands of vaccinations each day. Its plan is modeled on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and sets three broad phases that dictate in what order people will get the vaccine.
Cases climb in prisons
Just as cases are climbing across the state, they are ramping up in prisons.
"It seems really clear, as is true for the rest of the state, the DOC is the midst of a second wave, a second peak," said Alexander Shalom, senior supervising attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. "Like with the first one it’s going to be really ugly. It's going to mean a lot of people getting sick and too many people dying.”
In the last 16 weeks, 487 corrections staff members have tested positive, more than half of the number who tested positive in a 16-week period between April and July, when the department did its first round of testing.
Between April and July, there were 52 inmate deaths related to COVID and 2,892 inmate cases. Since mid-August there have been 548 confirmed COVID cases in inmates, according to the state.
There have been no COVID-related deaths in prisons since July, according to the Department of Corrections dashboard.
In response to the uptick in cases, though, corrections officials earlier this month again suspended all in-person visits and stopped holding group social service programs, such as educational courses and religious services, said department spokeswoman Liz Velez.
"For example, instead of attending classes, individuals are provided with learning packets for independent study, with educators on site to answer questions," she said.
The Corrections Department has also stopped accepting inmates from county jails and non-emergency medical appointments. Meanwhile, sanitization and regular testing of staff and inmates continue, Velez said.
Prisons, like long-term care facilities, have been ravaged by the virus because people live in such close quarters and social distancing is a challenge. Some inmates are elderly or have medical conditions that also make them vulnerable.
And although people think of prisons as locked-down facilities, they are porous, with staff members who come and go each day.
Public health experts have said reducing the prison population is the best way to lower the risk in prisons, and New Jersey — through an executive order and follow-up legislation for offenders nearing the end of their sentences — has dropped its prison population by over 30%, likely one of the biggest decreases of any state.
But there are still people incarcerated and vulnerable to the virus, Shalom said. The ACLU has supported legislation allowing as many 3,000 people to go home and has argued that the state Supreme Court should intervene and send more people home.
“We know there are going to be people who remain in prison, and they are going to be at grave risk," Shalom said.
Stacey Barchenger is a reporter in the New Jersey Statehouse. For unlimited access to her work covering New Jersey’s policymakers and political power structure, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.