Two weeks ago, the governors of Pennsylvania and New Jersey announced similar emergency plans to potentially release thousands of state prison inmates early in hopes of fending off major coronavirus outbreaks behind bars.

Pennsylvania has freed more than 100 in two weeks. In New Jersey, not one has been released.

That delay in the Garden State has left hundreds of potentially eligible inmates and their families concerned the state isn’t moving swiftly enough to outpace a virus that has proved capable of overwhelming detention facilities across the country.

And with each day that passes, Stephanie Maldonado, whose fiance of three years is incarcerated at Northern State Prison in Newark, wonders when state officials will make good on their promise.

“It’s like a false sense of hope,” she said. “[They’re] leading people to believe maybe they’re coming home, but that was two weeks ago.”

Stephanie Maldonado, left, with her fiance Gerald Williams, right, and their two sons.
Stephanie Maldonado
Stephanie Maldonado, left, with her fiance Gerald Williams, right, and their two sons.

In outlining their emergency release programs this month, Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania and Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey cited the need to quickly thin their prison populations. Public health advocates have warned that prison conditions make social distancing impossible and proper hygiene a challenge — factors that have turned detention facilities across the country into tinderboxes for transmission.

As of Thursday, 16 New Jersey state prisoners had died from the disease, while 427 correctional officers have tested positive. Only one Pennsylvania inmate has died, and 29 inmates and 54 guards have fallen ill.

Both governors structured their plans for inmate releases along similar lines, limiting candidates to nonviolent offenders who were nearing eligibility for parole as well as aging or ailing inmates who suffer from health conditions that make them more medically vulnerable to the virus.

Qualified prisoners would be temporarily released to house arrest and would have to report back to prison when the coronavirus emergency ended.

But while Pennsylvania prison officials released their first eight inmates within four days of Wolf’s announcement, New Jersey’s process has stalled.

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Corrections officials said Wednesday they had identified at least 1,100 New Jersey prisoners who could qualify for release. But steps required under Murphy’s order — such as conferring with prosecutors and victims about each potential parolee, and ascertaining whether they have an appropriate home setting to return to — have caused delays.

Murphy has also indicated that officials must weigh the risk to public health with that of public safety.

“A safe and responsible release initiative requires conducting a thorough review of each eligible person’s circumstances and an individualized determination of whether home confinement is suitable," spokesperson Jerell Harvey said.

Wolf set those same priorities for his program. And yet over the last two weeks a steady stream of Pennsylvania inmates have been returned to their homes or transitional housing.

So far, most of those released had been serving sentences for lower-level crimes such as drug offenses and retail theft. Almost all were close to completing their minimum sentence, according to data released by state prison officials. Priority was given to inmates who had reentry plans on file.

“It takes considerable staff time to verify and then approve someone for a governor’s reprieve. We believe the process is well worth the effort,” said Maria Finn, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. She added: “Without this temporary program, we are risking the health, and potentially lives, of employees and inmates.”

Inmate advocates say even Pennsylvania’s program could move more quickly. The 112 released as of Thursday are only a fraction of the 1,500 to 1,800 that state officials originally estimated could be eligible. Still, they acknowledge progress is being made.

“I would say the Department of Corrections is proceeding cautiously and methodically,” said Claire Shubik-Richards, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society. “But they are clearly moving, and they’re moving every day."

Meanwhile, across the Delaware River, families like Maldonado’s wait.

Her fiance, Gerald Williams, who is serving a four-year sentence for shoplifting and theft, suffers from severe asthma. His lawyers believe his health condition and the relatively low-level nature of his crimes make him a good candidate for release.

His risk of infection and serious complications behind bars increases with each day.

“I can’t sleep at night,” Maldonado said. “If he gets sick [or] God forbid, passes away.… We also have two young kids.”

Alex Shalom, a senior attorney at the ACLU of New Jersey, said the issue should concern more than just the families of inmates. An uptick in prisoners testing positive for the disease could put strain on the state’s already overwhelmed hospital system.

“Lots of people will unnecessarily be in hospitals. They’ll be on ventilators,” Shalom said. “If you don’t care about incarcerated people ... you should care about your grandmother who’s no longer going to have access to a ventilator.”