by Marilyn Piperno
TRENTON, N.J. – Assemblywomen Marilyn Piperno and Kim Eulner say Gov. Phil Murphy’s ill-advised mandates are prioritizing prisoners over officers to the detriment of the state’s correctional system and public safety.
On Friday, a New Jersey appeals court rejected a lawsuit from law enforcement unions challenging Murphy’s latest Covid-19 vaccine executive order, which requires state and county corrections officers to be fully vaccinated or boosted by March 30. His mandate eliminated the alternative testing option for workers at health care facilities and congregate settings who are not vaccinated. For incarcerated individuals at New Jersey’s prisons and halfway houses, vaccination continues to be voluntary.
“As the Covid-19 numbers continue to sharply decline, Governor Murphy is doubling down on vaccines and boosters that don’t prevent infection, but will certainly cause worker shortages in our correctional facilities. He is doing this while taking a victory lap for lifting mask mandates in schools and releasing prisoners because of his public health emergency declaration,” Piperno (R-Monmouth) said. “For him, it’s not about people or public safety, it’s about politics. His hypocritical actions are taking a toll on our essential workforce and straining already understaffed departments. If he won’t help our corrections officers, we will.”
Following a meeting with William Sullivan, the president of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local 105, the lawmakers say they plan to introduce legislation to provide corrections officers with much-needed workplace support that will address mental health issues, leave, and comp time for working long hours.
“Our officers and prison guards are overworked, understaffed and stressed to the max in a hostile environment. Many workers, even with the vaccine, have gained natural immunity from contracting Covid-19 and Murphy’s mandates completely ignore that fact, because it doesn’t fit his narrative,” Eulner (R-Monmouth) said. “He is more concerned with the health and safety of convicted criminals than he is with supporting front-line workers.”
More than 250 inmates from New Jersey prisons and halfway houses walked free last week under a law the governor signed in October 2020 that allows certain adult inmates or juveniles to earn early release credits during a declared public health emergency. As of October 2021, the program freed more than 5,000 inmates and reduced the state prison population by 40%. According to data from the Department of Corrections, staff and inmate Covid percent positivity rates have remained relatively low and stable for the last 18 months, prior to the Omicron surge.
Meanwhile, the assemblywomen say, corrections officers are being required to get a vaccine against their will, work 12-hour shifts, and postpone vacation days and administrative leaves, without knowing when they will get a day off. They say the mandate is unfair and unsafe, which is why they are working on a bill based on facts, not political science, to stem staff turnover and attrition.