Is NJ releasing COVID-19 prisoners into train stations, bus stops?
A Republican state lawmaker is faulting the Murphy administration over a Department of Corrections memo that suggests that COVID-19 prisoners are being released and taken to bus stops and train stations — a charge that state officials suggested was misleading.
“These inmates who are COVID-19 positive will be riding public transportation with patrons that are unsuspecting of the fact they may have patient zero on their bus," state Sen. Michael Testa, R-Cumberland, said Wednesday, a day after releasing a portion of a page of the memo.
Testa said while DOC personnel is wearing full PPE to transport sick and potential infectious inmates there are “no warnings or concern for the general public who will be exposed to these newly released inmates just minutes later.”
New Jersey Department of Corrections Communications Director Liz Velez said Tuesday that only 11 of the inmates who have been released early have tested positive for the coronavirus and none of them were released to public transportation hubs.
The internal NJDOC memo shared by Testa said released prisoners who have tested positive for COVID should be taken alone or in a group, together, to public transportation, as needed.
Velez said the DOC does not have the legal authority to hold other individuals scheduled for release after serving their sentence, regardless of their COVID-19 status.
Any inmates released are provided COVID-19 personal protective equipment such as masks to help manage virus transmission while staff helping with transport and the discharge process are required to wear proper PPE, Velez said.
Velez said that the 11 COVID-19 positive individuals being released under the emergency credit legislation this month were receiving personalized transportation plans.
"For example, some will be sent to parole placements where they will be medically isolated, others will be released to family, while others will be provided full transport by the Department to their residence," Velez said in a written response.
Testa's office said that the JDOC statement Tuesday was not in line with what corrections officers had previously relayed to state lawmakers — and that it was "possible — if not likely" that the release plan was updated after Testa shared the memo.
Last month, state officials said that more than 2,000 inmates would be released early as part of the pandemic emergency credit legislation. New Jersey prisons have the highest COVID-19 related death rate in the country, to date, with more than 50 deaths due to the virus.
The legislation signed Oct. 19 goes into effect Tuesday, clearing the way for inmates to be eligible for early release within 16 days and then another 1,000 toward the end of the year.
Testa said in a written statement that "sick inmates will have the opportunity to be super spreaders of the coronavirus all over New Jersey with bus and train tickets paid for by Governor Murphy."
When inmates are released, they have the chance to purchase discounted New Jersey Transit Tickets (rail and/or bus), according to a NJDOC guide posted online.