Last year was a bad time to be in prison or in a nursing home, where indoor concentrations of people placed them at greater risk of COVID-19. Nationwide, a fifth of state and federal prisoners tested positive for the novel coronavirus, four times the rate of the general population.
New Jersey, as part of the first and hottest U.S. pandemic hotspot, early on had 800 inmates test positive and 51 die from COVID. In May 2020 it had the highest state rate of inmate deaths. Treatment of the new illness was less effective early in the pandemic and the methods to best reduce its transmission were poorly understood.
In June 2020, the inmates of the Cumberland County Jail filed a federal lawsuit, seeking improvements in its pandemic response. They asked a judge to order the jail to provide every inmate with an N95 mask and perform testing immediately for all inmates and staff.
A law firm was appointed and the suit was amended in January. The county and inmates agreed that a monitor should oversee the COVID response and conditions at the jail, and this month U.S. Judge for the New Jersey District Noel L. Hillman ordered the appointment of a special master for the job. The monitor will examine testing for the coronavirus and contact tracing, quarantining practices and other related issues at the jail.
Judge Hillman said the agreement reflects “a good faith effort by the county — whatever mistakes may have been made in the past — to move forward and put in place the best jail the county can run under the difficult circumstances we all face,” he told Law360. “And I think having a monitor here makes a lot of sense in trying to achieve that goal.”
Hillman said the inmates pleaded, “I know this is a jail, but …,” and the agreement for a monitor will “go a long way in addressing the buts, the things that arise that have caused concern.”
Now that most Americans have been immunized by vaccination or by having the disease, COVID contagion is diminishing rapidly along with the restrictions to help slow it. The monitor’s help in ensuring the effectiveness of the jail’s epidemic response will still help as the pandemic comes to a close and when another novel virus almost inevitably arises someday.
We hope the actions by the court and the monitor will also help calm all sides involved in disputes about the jail. Another is that the county intends to close it and outsource county incarceration needs to neighboring counties with excess jail capacity, saving millions annually over the alternative of building a new one in Cumberland. The union of correctional officers prefers a new jail, avoiding the loss of jobs.
The county will have to pay for the monitor under the agreement, so the savings will be a bit diminished but still worthwhile overall.
Judge Hillman said the settlement was a win for all to the extent it can help protect inmates, staff, family members and those in government. “We fight hard, but we fight fair, it seems to me,” he said.
That, and keeping the interests of Cumberland County residents in mind, is all anyone can reasonably ask.