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New Jersey Corrections Officials (Temporarily) Banned Released Prisoners From Talking To Journalists

from the furloughing-rights dept

Our nation's prisons and jails are coronavirus incubators. Everyone inside is stacked on top of each other and the notion of "social distance" doesn't have much meaning in a place where sheltering in place means breathing the air of everyone else being forcibly sheltered in place.

Taking the risk of appearing soft on crime, some states have begun releasing at-risk prisoners, subject to a long list of exceptions that still leaves plenty of people in jail (and plenty of people tasked with watching over them). Since most crimes don't come with death sentences, it seems kind of cruel and unusual to subject minor criminals to the increased possibility of dying, but only a small percentage of inmates meet the criteria for release.

However, enough of them have that Rikers Island -- New York City's most infamous jail -- has seen its population dwindle to its World War II numbers. Like most jails, Rikers Island's population includes people who have yet to be convicted of a crime -- jailed until their trial date. With courts handling fewer cases than usual, jailings have become more indefinite than usual while awaiting trial.

Testing has ramped up in federal prisons and local jails, bringing with them severe spikes in confirmed cases. This never looks good on the COVID-19 balance sheet, but jam enough people into enclosed spaces and bad things develop quickly during pandemics.

Releasing at-risk inmates is a good idea, even if it's still mostly an unpopular one. The state of New Jersey decided to show some much-needed compassion by releasing some of its inmates. But that compassion came tied to a long list of restrictions that somehow included First Amendment violations, as NJ.com reports.

As New Jersey prepares to temporarily release some state prison inmates to stem a spike in coronavirus deaths behind bars, corrections officials threatened to throw anyone who talked to the media back in their cells, NJ Advance Media has learned.

The gag order was among more than two dozen conditions prisoners had to agree to in order to get temporary medical leave under an executive order signed by Gov. Phil Murphy this month, which sought to reduce prison populations by moving sick, elderly and other prisoners to home confinement.

Fortunately, this bonus Constitutional violation was stripped from the updated list [PDF] of requirements and restrictions given to released inmates. But it only happened after the ACLU complained to the state attorney general about the unconstitutional aspects of the release terms.

According to a spokesperson for the state's correctional facilities, this First Amendment blunder was the result of copy-pasting a bunch of home release stuff into a single one-size-fits-all document. That apparently included restrictions commonly placed on prisoners still in prison, but not one routinely foisted upon them once they're no longer under the guardianship of the state's correctional facilities.

That was the only comment given by the state on the issue, leaving unanswered questions about any vetting of the document before release or who might have greenlit the violation of released prisoners' rights.

It's not as though many temporarily furloughed prisoners will have much of an opportunity to talk to the media. The restrictions forbid leaving their homes for anything but a medical emergency and requires twice-a-day check-ins. It also forbids them from opening bank accounts, securing loans, operating vehicles, or getting married while they're under house arrest.

While it's good to see the unconstitutional ban on talking to the media was quickly excised once state officials were made aware of it, it's concerning that no one presiding over the temporary release took a better look at the restrictions before making them official.

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Filed Under: 1st amendment, covid-19, early release, free speech, journalism, new jersey, prisons


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  1. icon
    DB (profile), 27 Apr 2020 @ 3:26pm

    Hmm, I'm don't really see the problem for those with convictions continuing to serve their sentence.

    For federal prisoners the Bureau of Prisons decides how and where they will serve their sentences. They can unilaterally decide that a prisoner's status can be lowered to home detention, but impose prison-like restrictions on that detention. If the norm in prison is that talking to the press requires prior permission, they can presumably continue that restriction.


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