Pandemics (Old & New), Prisons, And A Mediation

By: Donald L Swanson

Pandemics and prisons don’t go together well — this we’ve learned from long history.   What follows are three examples: one is new (with mediation involved), and two are old.

2020 — Covid

A June 5, 2020, order from the New Jersey Supreme Court deals with an old issue: prisons and pandemics. The Order is In re Request to Modify Prison Sentences, Expedite Parole Hearings, and Identify Vulnerable Prisoners, Case No. M-1093-019 (6/5/2020).  

Here’ what happened. On March 19, 2020, New Jersey’s Public Defender seeks to commute or suspend many county jail sentences because of COVID-19. 

The Court directs the parties (the Public Defender, ACLU, Attorney General, and County Prosecutors Association) to mediate their disputes. The parties comply . . . and promptly reach a mediated agreement. As a result, on March 22, 2020, the Court enters a consent order, resulting in the release of nearly 700 inmates in about a week.  

Then, on April 8, 2020, the Public Defender and ACLU propose a second Order for release of more serious offenders: i.e., all state prison and juvenile inmates scheduled for release in the next 12 months, excluding violent offenders subject to the No Early Release Act.

Two days later, New Jersey’s Governor issues an executive order, setting standards for granting parole or medical furlough to state prison inmates. By June 1, 2020, under that executive order, 607 inmates are approved for home confinement or parole, and 407 are released. 

That same day, the Court suggests another mediation to address requests for relief for additional inmates. But the parties fail to reach agreement.  Accordingly, the Court issues its June 5, 2020, Order, addressing due process issues for inmates seeking release.

1832 — Cholera

Cholera rocks the USA in 1832.  It’s a water-borne disease that spreads rapidly, with high mortality—especially, back then, among prisoners already in poor states of health

An 1832 New Orleans newspaper article describes Cholera’s effects like this [Fn. 1]:

  • “The Cholera or Cold Plague, together with the Yellow Fever, is raging to so great an extent, that coffins cannot be made fast enough to put the dead into”;
  • “The Yellow Fever is very bad, and persons are taken off with Cholera in two hours”;
  • “Business is completely prostrated, stores shut up, and one half of the people have fled from town”;
  • “Last night upwards of seventy coffins were at the grave yard, and none to bury them, and in consequence had to remain overnight”; and
  • “The grave yards are now full, and they are burying them outside of the yards.”  

Here’s how a biography of that time describes medical knowledge about Cholera [Fn. 2]:

  • Almost everything they had been told about the disease, from its prevention to its remedies, was wrong;
  • Cholera is contracted from infected water, and it’s primary symptom is “life threatening dehydration within hours”; and
  • As to remedies, one doctor advised “bathing the feet in a hot salt or mustard bath; applying hot bricks to the arms and legs, small of the back, and pit of the stomach,” along with bleeding. 

The first person to proclaim a proper Cholera remedy is described by an October 18, 1832, report in the Cincinnati Gazette [Fn. 3] like this:

  • ”Mr. Henry Boyd, a man of color, has suggested that the source of Cholera is in the water, and that it may be removed by boiling all the water we use and letting it cool again before used”;
  • “This is a very simple process which can produce evil to no one”; and
  • “Even our country friends of the market can boil and bottle their water, before they come to the city, and if the theory be well, bring it with them and incur no risk.”  

And, no, this Mr. Henry Boyd from 1832 is not a physician.  He is “a carpenter who built up a prosperous business in Cincinnati,” despite the culture of that day. [Fn. 4] 

[Note: 1832 precedes the Civil War by three decades.]

1800 — Yellow Fever

In 1800 (three decades before that Cholera outbreak), a Yellow Fever pandemic sweeps through the newly-independent USA.  

Here’s a report from the biography of a prominent person, Robert Morris, who occupied a Philadelphia debtors’ prison at the time of the 1800 pandemic [Fn. 5]:

  • “During his first summer [in debtors’ prison] and the [summer] that followed, the scourge of yellow fever returned to the city, and dozens of prisoners died”;
  • “At the height of the plague permission was granted for inmates to remove to quarters in the countryside. Morris declined, content to remain in his cell and tend to his plot in the prison garden,” writing that, “I feel no kind of apprehension . . . My only anxiety is for my wife and daughter and these poor sick people”; and
  • Morris’s son, William, “was stricken in September, and after being ‘bled, blistered, purged, sweated,’ finally succumbed.” “William had been profligate in his youth and desultory in his father’s service, but Morris felt his death keenly,” saying this about William:  “his value to his family I never counted until he was lost, and now I see its magnitude, and that it is irreparable.”


Pandemics have been with us, here in these United States, for as long as our Country has been around.

Dealing with deadly diseases is always a challenge, and protecting the health of prison inmates is one of those challenges.


Footnote 1. From page 40 of “Fortune and Faith in Old Chicago: A Dual Biography of Mayor Augustus Garrett and Seminary Founder Eliza Clark Garrett,” Southern Illinois University Press (2020), by Dr. Charles H. Cosgrove, Director of the PhD program at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

Footnote 2.  Id. at 35-36.

Footnote 3.  Id. at 36.

Footnote 4. Id., at 207, n. 37

Footnote 5. This information and quotes are from the last chapter (titled “Ruin”) and Epilogue of the biography of Robert Morris, written by Charles Rappleye: “Robert Morris, Financier of the American Revolution,” at 490-530 (Simon & Schuster, 2010).

      ** If you find this article of value, please feel free to share. If you’d like to discuss, let me know.

2 thoughts on “Pandemics (Old & New), Prisons, And A Mediation

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: