N.J. tried to ban inmates from talking to media if they are released amid coronavirus crisis

As New Jersey prepares to temporarily release some state prison inmates to stem a spike in coronavirus deaths behind bars, corrections officials threatened to throw anyone who talked to the media back in their cells, NJ Advance Media has learned.

The gag order was among more than two dozen conditions prisoners had to agree to in order to get temporary medical leave under an executive order signed by Gov. Phil Murphy this month, which sought to reduce prison populations by moving sick, elderly and other prisoners to home confinement.

Violating any term can land you back in prison, where at least 16 inmates have already died, as well as trigger “further disciplinary action,” according to the original contract.

The ban on speaking to reporters was removed only after civil liberties advocates complained to the state attorney general, according to Alexander Shalom, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

A draft obtained by NJ Advance Media directed prisoners not to “engage in any public activities, meetings, discussions or demonstrations, or give interviews/opinions to the press, radio, or television media.”

The condition raised concerns among free speech advocates, especially at a time when the state’s prison system faces intense scrutiny over limited testing, a rise in deaths in custody and complaints from inmates and officers that New Jersey isn’t doing enough to quell the spread of COVID-19.

“It appears to be a form of prior restraint, which is clearly something precluded by the First Amendment,” said Tom Cafferty, a media lawyer at Gibbons P.C. in New Jersey.

Cafferty serves as general counsel for the New Jersey Press Association, and he said corrections officials do have the authority to control media access to inmates in their care. For example, they could turn down an interview request out of concern for the safety of the inmate, staff or members of the press.

“But this doesn’t appear to be a valid condition to any furlough or medical leave,” he said. “This is somebody who’s not even in the prison and there’s a restriction on their speech rights.”

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