At about midnight in mid-April, a prisoner at Mid-State Correctional Facility in New Jersey was told to clean up vomit. The sergeant gave him a pair of gloves and a mask, according to a recorded call between the incarcerated man and his son which was shared with The Appeal. The Appeal is not naming the incarcerated person out of concern for his safety.
“I do normally do clean-up late at night,” he told his son. “I don’t have a problem doing it.”
When he took the mop head off to throw it away, his gloves ripped. The next day, he told his son, he began to feel ill. Days later, he was hospitalized and learned he had tested positive for COVID-19.
For the first approximately three days at the hospital, he was in “plastic cuffs,” he told his son. “Zip Ties go on both wrists and then they put one inbetween both wrists,” he explained to his son. “I was still so sick. I wasn’t going anywhere. My legs were already chained.”
The leg shackles remained on throughout his stay at the hospital, he wrote to The Appeal through the prison’s messaging system.
“When we leave the facility for any reason they put handcuffs around your ankles with a one foot chain distance between so you can walk,” he wrote to The Appeal. “Maybe it’s because we are used to this, but they really didn’t bother me all that much because they were not tight.”
After about three or four days, the plastic cuffs were removed, he said, “so I could clean up.” But then one or two days later an officer handcuffed him with “heavy metal cuffs,” possibly because of an unrelated emergency at the hospital. Despite a nurse’s objections, he said, the officer refused to remove them.
“I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t move,” he said. “They were very tight. He wouldn’t even come and loosen them up. And when I called and I begged him—‘Just come in and loosen up the cuffs.’ He told me, ‘Just go lay down buddy.’”
When he went to use the bathroom, the handcuffs became tangled in his IV, he told his son.
“I ripped out my IV and there was blood everywhere,” he said. “It was terrible. It was so painful. You have no idea. You have no idea. I was absolutely in tears.”
After about 36 hours, another officer removed the handcuffs. He does not know who placed him in handcuffs, but says it was not an officer from Mid-State. “All Mid-State cops know me,” he told his son. “They would have never done that to me.” Of the care he received at the hospital, he wrote to The Appeal, “I want to go on record first as saying [Virtua] Hospital in Mt Holly NJ was really nice and the nurses were awesome. All of them were kind and compassionate and I’m grateful.”
He was hospitalized for about six days, and then discharged to Garden State Youth Correctional Facility, he wrote to The Appeal. When he arrived at Garden State, there were masks and garbage in his room, which he presumes were left by the previous occupant, he told his son. After about a week at the prison, he finally received a pillow, he said. On May 1, he was sent back to Mid-State, he wrote to The Appeal.
“It’s like we’re being targeted because we’re sick,” he told his son. “Like it’s our fault. We’re being punished because we’re sick.”
His son told The Appeal that he hopes their family receives “an acknowledgement from the state and some sort of promise to do better.”
“It’s been extremely difficult and devastating and disappointing,” he said. “The current leadership should be showing compassion to prisoners especially during this time period and they’re just not.”
In response to The Appeal’s questions about the patient’s account, Liz Velez, the director of communications for the New Jersey Department of Corrections, emailed, “Although we cannot discuss [name redacted] medical history, we can confirm inmates are provided the PPE to complete various assignments. It is Departmental policy for inmates to be secured when they are outside of a facility, with exceptions when medically necessary.”
When asked for a copy of the departmental policy, Matthew Schuman, a department of corrections spokesperson, wrote to The Appeal, “The policy you have requested is an Internal Management Procedure, which means the actual document cannot be shared.” Schuman also wrote to The Appeal that, “As soon as [name redacted] made the Administration aware that he didn’t have a pillow, he immediately was provided with a pillow.” The cells, Schuman wrote, are “cleaned and sanitized by hospital porters.” Prisoners, he continued, “are provided proper PPE and sanitization products to manage the disinfecting of their cells and encouraged to sanitize their cell throughout the day.”
Governor Phil Murphy’s office said it had no further comment. The state department of health directed The Appeal to the department of corrections.
New Jersey officials have been criticized for a delayed and inadequate response to the virus’s spread inside state prisons. As of May 4, out of more than 18,000 prisoners, just 245 people had been tested. Thirty-five prisoners have died and 184 have tested positive. New Jersey prisoners have a higher death rate from COVID-19 than the federal prison system or any other state prison system, according to data collected by The Marshall Project and an analysis by NJ.com.
“They are not testing inmates unless they are symptomatic to the point where they need hospitalization,” said William Sullivan, president of the Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local #105, which represents correctional officers. “You have to be in pretty bad shape for the inmates to be tested.”
As of May 4, 578 correctional staff tested positive for the virus, according to the department of corrections. Two correctional officers at state prisons have died, according to Sullivan. The Policemen’s Benevolent Association set up testing sites for members, he said, when the state did not provide one, despite their requests to the governor. In a letter dated April 29, the Office of Employee Relations denied the union’s request for hazard pay.
“COVID has hit us pretty hard and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down,” said Sullivan. “I think if we got testing early on for the staff and inmates we could have mitigated the spread.”
On Thursday, Murphy announced that they expect to start testing all prisoners and correctional staff this week. His announcement comes after advocacy by faith leaders and civil rights activists who have repeatedly urged Murphy and the department of corrections to expand testing.
“I really think the governor has a good heart,” said Alonzo Perry Sr., a pastor and leader with New Jersey Together, one of the organizations spearheading efforts to protect prisoners from COVID-19. Murphy, he said, has been “leading very courageously.”
”When he talks about this pandemic it’s not about numbers, it’s about people,” Perry continued. “And we don’t want to forget that the people who are incarcerated, people who are paying back their debt to society are also people that deserve the rights of all the human family.”