County jails across New Jersey are moving to release what could amount to 1,000 inmates under a court order, in a sobering instance of trying to “beat the clock” against the spread of the novel coronavirus.

As of March 23, at least two corrections officers and three county inmates at facilities across North Jersey had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. On March 24, Morris County jail also announced a county inmate had tested positive for COVID-19 and was being treated in isolation.

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced Monday that county inmates fitting certain criteria would be processed and released starting March 24.

Prosecutors had until Monday evening to submit objections to individual inmates being released under a consent order signed Sunday evening by New Jersey Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, after weekend negotiations involving Grewal, county prosecutors, the state public defender’s office and the ACLU-NJ.

If specific objections are made by a county prosecutor or the AG’s office about an individual's release, a hearing with a special master would be slated for later this week.

The order, believed to be the first of its kind at the state level amid the COVID-19 pandemic, does not commute sentences. Instead, it grants temporary release during New Jersey’s first ever public health emergency.

Alexander Shalom, a lawyer and director of Supreme Court Advocacy with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said prosecutors had worked from late last week through the weekend, reviewing case files and finding common ground alongside the public defender and ACLU-NJ.

Shalom said an estimate that the order could impact 1,000 people was based on looking at which percentage of county jail inmates are serving sentences, as opposed to those being held pre-trial.

These are individuals who typically have been housed in county jails — instead of state prison — as a condition of probation, or because of municipal court convictions, or are serving time for fourth-degree or disorderly persons offenses, Grewal said Monday.

Shalom said of all parties involved, “everyone’s concerned about public safety, but a recognition that public health is a critical part of public safety — and that keeping all New Jerseyans safe includes incarcerated people, people who work in jails and the people who love them.”

According to Grewal the order also creates a process to ensure inmates being released have somewhere secure to go, either their own shelter, or housing services, or involving medical treatment.

Grewal said as a career prosecutor, "I take no pleasure in temporarily releasing" inmates, but the most significant public health crisis our state has faced is “forcing us to take actions we wouldn't consider during normal times."

"We know and we've seen across the river that jails can be incubators for disease, so we have to take drastic steps,” Grewal said.

As reported by NBC New York, at Rikers Island in New York City, 21 inmates and 17 employees had tested positive for COVID-19 by Monday.

Shalom echoed the references to New York’s situation, as he said this was not a time to be slow and deliberate but to act decisively, getting inmates out before jails turn into “petri dishes” for the spread of the virus.

"Inmates who are being detained pre-trial because a judge found that they present a danger to the community or a flight risk are not being released," the Attorney General's Office repeated Monday evening.

New Jersey has essentially done away with bail, but instead a judge can choose to hold a prisoner deemed a danger or flight risk — such as those Grewal referenced.

COVID-19 at NJ county jails

An inmate at Morris County jail was being treated in medical isolation after tests confirmed that he is positive for COVID-19, the county announced March 24. The inmate presented a slight fever Saturday and was put into medical isolation and tested. Results received Tuesday showed he was positive for novel coronavirus.

As of March 23, two inmates in Hudson County, one inmate in Essex County, one corrections officer in Morris County and one corrections officer in Bergen County had all tested positive for coronavirus.

In Hudson County, both inmates at the Corrections & Rehabilitation Center were quarantined on site as of Sunday.

In Essex County also on Sunday, an inmate residing in Delaney Hall in Newark had tested positive for coronavirus before being isolated from the general population.

"All staff who have come into contact with the inmate and the seven inmates who were housed in the same dorm with the one inmate have been quarantined at the facility," according to county officials.

The Hudson County jail, which also houses ICE detainees, is on COVID-19 protocol for 14 days — which includes modified lock-down, daily temperature-taking of staff, inmates and detainees, sanitizing the entire complex, and case tracing.

Hudson County officials also said detainees were “provided with computer tablets in their cells to stay in contact with loved ones, and will have their individual accounts funded to allow them to buy items” from the commissary.

Also Sunday, one officer at the Morris County Correctional Facility tested positive for COVID-19, resulting in self-isolation for the officer and “special cleaning and ultraviolet light cleansing in portions of the facility,” according to the Morris County Sheriff’s Office.

The Bergen County corrections officer who tested positive a week ago remained in quarantine at home as of Monday, as did seven other officers who may have been in contact, officials said.

Bergen County officials said 15 jail inmates who were in contact with the corrections officer remained in a quarantine-setting in one dormitory unit, as a precautionary measure.

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