Large-Scale New Jersey Prison Releases During COVID-19: Experiences of Released Prisoners with Substance Use Disorders

Peter Treitler, MSW, Madeline H. Bono, PsyM, Brendan Saloner, PhD, Stephen Crystal, PhD

Publication Date: 08/18/2021

Correctional facilities saw disproportionately high rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths, with COVID-19 mortality rates among prisoners double those of the non-incarcerated population. In efforts to mitigate this, New Jersey’s Public Health Emergency Credit Act (S2519) went into effect in November 2020, granting prisoners who were within one year of release and met certain other criteria up to an eight-month reduction in their sentence during a public health emergency. Largely as a result of the legislation, the New Jersey prisoner population has been reduced by more than 30% since November 2020, with over 2,000 individuals released on November 4th, 2020 alone. Many individuals eligible for early release carried diagnoses of substance use disorders, placing them at high risk of overdose and other adverse outcomes after release. Ensuring a safe transition from prison to the community for these individuals is critical but is potentially complicated during large-scale releases such as New Jersey’s, which may overburden reentry service providers.

This policy brief reports on findings from in-depth interviews with formerly incarcerated individuals who reported pre-existing substance use disorders and were released early through the Public Health Emergency Credit Act. Interviews were analyzed in order to document releasees’ experiences of large-scale decarceration and to illustrate successes and challenges in reentry service-provision for these releasees. Respondents described differences between their incarceration experiences before and after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Reported factors that affected reentry planning for respondents included reduced time for reentry planning, which may have contributed to miscommunications and paperwork errors reported by some respondents; disruptions to planned prison vocational and educational services; and difficulty securing valid government IDs prior to release. Despite these challenges, all respondents completed the New Jersey Department of Corrections’ reentry planning process, including applications for Medicaid and other public benefits, prior to release. Releasees were connected to social service organizations that were able to aid with housing, benefits, health care, and other needs. Additionally, all eligible respondents were provided with the option to receive medications for opioid use disorder (MOUD) while incarcerated, and were provided with resources (e.g., prescriptions, community referrals) to continue treatment as a component of reentry planning.