TRENTON — One of every 718 New Jerseyans has died due to coronavirus. Among prison inmates it’s one of every 394 – and it’s affecting a younger population, considering that nearly 80% of those who have died statewide are 65 years or older.

Against that backdrop, as well as infection rates running six times in prisons higher than the state as a whole, two Assembly committees met Wednesday to analyze the issues.

“If these failures led to the preventable deaths of any uniformed hero in our correctional institutions or any inmate, we must do better. And we have to look into why that happened,” said Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, D-Hudson.

Mukherji said “it’s a shame” Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks declined to attend the hearing and answer questions, citing ongoing settlement discussions around prisoner release rules and other external inquiries and investigations.

In written testimony, Hicks said the prison system has now tested everyone for COVID-19 and that just under 12% of staff and just over 12% of inmates tested positive. He described New Jersey’s overall positivity rate at 16.6%, but that ignores that fewer than one in nine residents have been tested.

Less than 2% of the state’s overall population has tested positive. However, there was a shortage of tests at the time when pandemic’s wave appeared to be at its peak, so that is probably an undercount.

“The department joined the rest of the world in having to address a global pandemic. Unlike the rest of the world, the department took on this unprecedented challenge while being in the proverbial eye of the storm,” Hicks wrote. “As such, the NJDOC takes the threat of the virus seriously and, in consultation with the Department of Health, has taken proactive measures to help mitigate its spread.”

At the hearing, lawmakers were urged to take up new legislation that would provide a ‘public health emergency credit’ knocking a year off most inmates’ sentences. The Rev. Charles Boyer said it’s a matter of urgency.

“Time is not on our side to figure it all out because when we took that time, we lost 45 people. Every single day, we could lose another life,” Boyer said.

Boyer said a 47th inmate died of coronavirus Tuesday: LaPatrick Turner, who was nearly two years into a three-year sentence for a 2018 burglary in North Brunswick.

The state has released a few hundred inmates – 240 to date, with 26 others also approved – to temporary emergency medical home confinement in connection with an executive order issued by Gov. Phil Murphy on April 10. Thousands of others who were eligible for the program were denied.

Last week, the state Supreme Court directed the Department of Corrections to revise its procedures to provide inmates with a document summarizing the reason the furlough was denied.

Public Defender Joseph Krakora said it’s taking too long for the state to document reasons for denying medical furloughs.

“We have a saying in my office that they’re running out the clock, so to speak,” Krakora said.

Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin, D-Middlesex, said the longer it takes, the more it becomes moot.

“It sounds like by the time they get to a decision, we won’t be in this particular crisis,” Pinkin said.

Jeanne LoCicero, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said the issue will remain urgent.

“Public health experts are still reporting that these past few months might have been just the beginning of the pandemic and that we are likely to see additional life-threatening waves of this infection,” LoCicero said.

The coronavirus has exposed a capital improvement needed at many state prisons, said PBA Local 105 president William Sullivan: Solid doors to replace ones made of bars. He said inmates were relocated to the newer South Woods State Prison so they could be isolated if symptomatic or had tested positive.

“Moving the inmates wasn’t ideal, but it did help to stop the spread because dorm settings and open-bar settings are not good to contain the virus,” Sullivan said.

Nearly 500 inmates at South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton have tested positive for coronavirus. That’s the most in the New Jersey prison system, though that’s also the state’s largest prison, with a capacity of around 3,300.

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In less populous counties, the prison totals can have a significant impact on overall counts of positive coronavirus tests. The inmate population accounts for 30% of all known cases in Hunterdon County and 29% in Cumberland County.

Statewide, nearly 2,500 inmates and 800 staffers in the Department of Corrections have tested positive for coronavirus. Additional rounds of continuous testing of inmates and staff are planned.

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Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.