Photo by Afif Kusuma on Unsplash

As the Delta variant rages across the nation, the New Jersey State Prison experienced its first positive infection of the new COVID-19 variant. 

Last week, word spread that three officers were infected, shrouding the prison in a sense of  fear. Also starting Saturday, July 12, the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC) once again mandated the wearing of protective masks within its facilities. I was informed of the rule by my supervisor at the chapel where I work as a clerk. 

The Delta variant, which is twice as transmissible as the original strain, has caused COVID-19 cases to spike nationally, making up 83% of all COVID-19 infections in the nation as of July 20, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In New Jersey, hospitalization has declined significantly since the peak of the pandemic, but the New Jersey Department of Health reported that hospitalizations jumped 30% in just two weeks to 419 on July 26 from 350 on July 19, earlier this month. 

According to one of the nurses I spoke to last week, approximately 45% of the NJSP custody and prison population has been vaccinated. That compares to 76% statewide, who have received at least one vaccination, reported in Governor Phil Murphy’s coronavirus briefing earlier this week. 

Amid reports that most of the hospitalizations and deaths are taking place among the unvaccinated population, NJDOC has started to provide some incentive for prisoners who have been hesitant about receiving the vaccination.

The administration said it would increase the allowed weight for food packages that incarcerated people can receive to 80 pounds instead of 60 pounds. The food package program is a highly-valued incentive that is offered to people who are infraction free. Twice a year, they can order food items from approved vendors, including fried-chicken from Popeyes, White Castle burgers as well as deli meats, cookies, snacks and other groceries from stores like Walmart and ShopRite. I can even halal food. 

The prison also sent multiple emails through the Jpay prison messaging system to increase awareness and information about the pandemic and the Moderna vaccinations.

Even the smallest effort has been welcomed by the many prisoners who have been vaccinated, including me, but we remain concerned that there is no procedure or incentive for the NJDOC staff and custody to get vaccinated.

We wonder how  the DOC will tackle the new Delta infections without putting the prison on yet another lockdown. 

(Additional reporting by Max Grinstein) 

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Tariq MaQbool

Tariq MaQbool is a contributing writer at the Prison Journalism Project and maintains Captive Voices, a blog where he shares his poetry and essays as well as the writings of other incarcerated people. His work has been published in The Marshall Project, NJ Star Ledger, Slant'd magazine and The News Station. He is incarcerated in New Jersey.