Excerpted From: Micah J. Bowden, Incarcerated During Covid-19: A Look at New Jersey, 23 Rutgers Race & the Law Review 355 (2022) (232 Footnotes) (Full Document)
As of 2020, the United States not only has the highest number of COVID-19 cases, but it also has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. A long lasting American failure, mass incarceration, has now collided with a new failure, our prior administration's disregard in handling the coronavirus. Due to the combination of these disasters the virus has spread quicker in American prisons and jails than it did at the pandemic's first outbreak in Wuhan, China. In fact, inmates are infected at a rate five times higher than our county's overall rate. The incarcerated have died at a rate of 39 deaths per 100,000 which is significantly higher than the national rate of 29 deaths per 100,000. As of April 2021, The New York Times has reported that more than 661,000inmates and staff have tested positive for the coronavirus and as previously stated, over 2,000 people have died. Even more concerning, this number is likely higher as prisons and jails conduct testing on a limited basis. The United States practice of mass incarceration is one of the leading factors causing the COVID-19 crisis behind bars. Thus, we must question, how did we get here?
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New Jersey has faced a COVID-19 catastrophe in their prisons and jails. No other state in the U.S. has a higher death rate, with few other states having surpassed New Jersey's death toll. A large factor in the rapid spread of the coronavirus in correctional facilities is overcrowding, which creates the impossibility to properly social distance. The U.S incarcerates the most people in the world, due to a history of politicians desiring to seem “tough on crime.” So, how did New Jersey manage this history of mass incarceration that has led to the rapid spread of Covid-19 behind bars?
New Jersey implemented Executive Order 124 that was enacted at a slow pace, allowing inmates to die, while releasing few. As a result, 53 inmates in New Jersey have died due to COVID-19. In response, bill S2519/A4235 was issued nearly 8 months after the beginning of the pandemic. While this bill did a far better job at releasing and protecting inmates, many more lives could have been saved if these laws were enacted sooner and more efficiently.
Moving forward, New Jersey officials can improve on their protection of the incarcerated by continuing to vaccinate those behind bars and continuing to de-carcerate New Jersey facilities. If state officials continue to provide justice and compassion to the incarcerated, New Jersey can make sure that a jail or prison sentence will never result in a death sentence, again.
Juris Doctor, Rutgers Law School, Class of 2022.