N.J. prisons grapple with staff shortages, inmate restrictions as COVID-19 spreads anew
As the omicron variant sends coronavirus cases surging statewide, the virus also has spiked in New Jersey prisons, creating severe staffing shortages and increased restrictions for inmates, including suspended visitation.
About 1,600 of the 7,300 staffers with the state Department of Corrections were out because of COVID-19 in December, and another 450 tested positive the first week of the year, state Department of Corrections spokeswoman Liz Velez said Friday.
More than 6,700 inmates have tested positive since the pandemic started, with 28% — almost 1,900 inmates — occurring since the omicron surge started last month, according to department data. That’s the biggest jump in reported coronavirus cases in New Jersey prisons since fall 2020.
The spike comes despite prisons’ “continued mitigation efforts” that include universal testing, vaccine and booster administrations, limited non-emergency transfers of inmates, attendance limits for group activities, suspension of in-person visitation, and required masking, Velez said.
With so much staff out sick or quarantining, many officers are being required to work 12-hour shifts and postpone vacation days and administrative leaves, said William Sullivan, president of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local 105, which represents 5,000 correctional and parole officers.
Things were worse over the recent winter holidays, with some officers required to work seven days without a break, Sullivan said. Shortened quarantine times should help alleviate staff shortages, he added. Staff sick with COVID-19 previously had to quarantine for 10 days, but the department has cut quarantine time for staff to five days, in line with the CDC’s most recent guidance.
“I think they need to lock the jails down for two weeks and get a handle on it. I have asked about it,” Sullivan said. “But once you start confining the inmates to their cells for long periods of time, it causes disruption, so it’s not a popular thought.”
In September, a prison watchdog group held New Jersey up as a leader nationally in how it responded to the spread of coronavirus behind bars, largely crediting an early-release policy that freed more than 5,000 inmates. That policy ended when Gov. Phil Murphy lifted the public health emergency last June.
About 11,400 people currently are in state prisons, Velez said.
Several inmates’ families said the omicron surge should prompt state officials to consider reinstating early release, a cause some inmates have taken up in letters to legislators.
“You would be hard pressed to find an inmate, officer, or civilian who has not been infected within the last month,” one inmate wrote in a letter provided to the New Jersey Monitor. “We have had mask mandates since May 2020, there are no visits, and no food packages, but there is no stopping the transmission of this virus. There are so many officers out sick that the prisons are locking down, meaning no showers, phones, or kiosks to contact the outside world.”
Some inmates have resisted getting vaccines or boosters, in hopes officials will reinstate the early-release policy as a vaccination incentive, several inmates’ families said.
The families asked not to be identified because they fear inmates would face reprisals.
Sixty-one percent of inmates and less than a third of staff have been vaccinated, compared to almost 71% of the general population statewide, state data shows. Velez noted that staff vaccination rates don’t reflect vaccines officers received outside of work hours.
The department still offers incentives to persuade inmates to get vaccines, but the enticements are things like “Subway sandwiches that they have to buy — they don’t even get them for free,” said the father of one inmate living in a South Jersey prison.
The man’s unvaccinated son, whose sentence ends this year, now has asymptomatic COVID-19 and has been placed in an isolation unit to quarantine for two weeks with about 160 COVID-positive inmates. Quarantined inmates have tighter restrictions like limited access to phones than the general population, which has soured the moods of many inmates, he added.
The lag in test results fuels the virus’ spread behind bars, said the frustrated wife of an inmate at Jones Farm, a minimum-security prison in Mercer County. Labs statewide are experiencing delays due to increased testing demand.
“The test results are coming back after four days, five days, so by the time the test comes back, everybody is with everybody, mingling,” said the wife. “It’s not a good system. It doesn’t even make sense.”
Inmates’ general distrust of the system also has kept some from getting vaccinated, including her husband, who recently tested positive and is in an isolation unit, the woman said. Because of visitation restrictions, she said, she hasn’t seen him since September.
“There’s nothing to trust there,” she said. “You can’t even say your mouth is hurting you, because they pull out your teeth.”
Bonnie Kerness, coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee’s Prison Watch, said staffing shortages and social-distancing challenges make it tough for prisons to curb the virus’ spread.
“I am concerned,” she said. “Their only capacity for social separation is to keep people in their cells, and that could cause issues.”
Still, she noted, the omicron variant typically results in milder symptoms than other variants.
“I’m not hearing the same level of fury and anxiety — and in some cases, cruelty — that I heard the first time around,” earlier in the pandemic, she said. “We know more now, so the prisons are better prepared. And it’s a less severe strain, so those who have been vaccinating are not getting as sick, so family members are not getting as hysterical.”
Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex) called the spike in coronavirus cases behind bars “worthy of examination” and said she plans to hold a hearing later this year focusing on the future of women’s prisons, given the troubled history and pending closure of the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women.
“One of the things we can bring up in addition to that is the COVID issue,” she said.
A longstanding problem
Sullivan said the current staffing crisis is not new. COVID-19 might be making it worse, but interest in correctional careers has plummeted in recent years, he said.
“We used to graduate about 800 people a year to fill vacancies, but now we’re down to about 200, if we’re lucky,” he said, referring to the 16-week training academy for recruits. “Our starting salary is $40,000, and no one wants to make $40,000 to work in a very hostile environment. The risk isn’t worth the reward.”
Attrition is an ongoing drain on staff, Sullivan said. About 32 correctional officers retire a month, and “we probably have about 1,000 officers that could retire tomorrow,” he added.
Burnout is skyrocketing and morale is low, partly because of pandemic stresses, he said. Assaults on officers also are up, though, with 200 assaults on staff reported last year, up from 148 the year before, and 70 incidents of inmates throwing bodily fluids on officers, up from 25 the year before, Sullivan said.
“Mental health issues are through the roof,” he said.
Sullivan said he has repeatedly — and unsuccessfully — asked the state for hazard pay for correctional officers, given their increased COVID-19 risks on the job. Correctional officers in Pennsylvania and Connecticut have sued for hazard pay, while other states, including Nebraska and Maryland, have given prisons workers hazard pay.
Velez said administrators have decided “on a facility-by-facility basis, rank-by-rank and shift-by-shift basis” how to cover each facility’s most essential positions.
“As a department, we deeply appreciate the staff and unions for assisting as we work through the current surge in COVID cases,” Velez said.