Photo of New Jersey State Prison by David Keddie (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Two-and-a-half years after the pandemic shut down New Jersey State Prison, the COVID-19 emergency restrictions were lifted on March 16. Religious services, school, and other vocational and educational programs also fully returned with minimal mask-wearing and social distancing restrictions. 

Religious services at full capacity resumed on March 18 with Islamic Jummah Friday service. More than 200 Muslim prisoners congregated together for the first time in more than two years. During the pandemic’s most restrictive periods, only nine prisoners had been permitted to gather at one time. In normal times, the Jummah service is the largest religious gathering at this prison. 

The atmosphere seemed almost festive as many prisoners saw each other for the first time in a while. People mingled freely, largely ignoring the recommended precautions, and many didn’t wear their masks. Congregants were seen shaking hands and hugging one another.

The Protestants and Catholics also followed with services at full capacity, and we heard similar reports of prisoners being in high spirits. The Protestant service was also packed with almost 175 churchgoers, and the Catholic mass reportedly drew 50 worshippers.

In addition, as of April 4, the NJSP visitation program was restarted in accordance with a color-coded evaluation system developed by the New Jersey Department of Health (NJDOH). Under the system, there are four designated COVID-19 infection levels: red — very high risk; orange — high risk; yellow — moderate risk; and green — low risk.

Currently, visits are restricted to window visits for those who remain unvaccinated. Contact visits, where prisoners can sit with their families and friends, are allowed only for the vaccinated prisoners, though even then, prisoners and visitors must sit 10 feet apart and cannot touch. A representative for the administration said in a recent Tier Representative (Tier-Rep) meeting that this rule will remain until an order from the downtown head office changes the parameters. Tier-Rep meetings are a way for administration officials to liaise with prisoner representatives. 

Mingled with the joy, however, is also a feeling of exhaustion and angst. While the rest of the society has been mingling for some time, prisoners in New Jersey have been kept isolated since spring of 2020. Many people want to resume life as it was prior to the pandemic but are feeling constrained by the enhanced scrutiny that has become the norm. 

They see images of packed stadiums and sports arenas on television and are frustrated that they aren’t being allowed to return to normal lives like the outside world.

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.