With its innocuous name, the Special Treatment Unit (STU) sounds like a hospital. It’s a building in Avenel, New Jersey, housing 441 “residents,” as it calls them. It has what state officials have described as a “comprehensive treatment program” with cognitive behavioral therapy delivered by mental health experts.
But the STU is actually a prison in all but name—it’s run by the state’s Department of Corrections and located on the grounds of the East Jersey State Prison. So-called residents live there involuntarily, often for decades on end, their lives controlled and regimented. That’s because the detainees in the STU were all convicted of sex offenses and deemed too dangerous to release, despite research showing that such assessments are often flawed.
Inside this small, harmless-sounding complex, at least eight individuals died of COVID-19 by the end of May. Two others have died since mid-March, but the causes haven’t been released. As of May 28, state officials confirmed 55 STU prisoners had tested positive, but prisoner Roy Marcum said on June 2 that he believes the number is about 70.
With at least eight deaths per 441 prisoners, the STU has a higher death rate—by far—than any prison in America. Its death count is equal to that of all the prison complexes combined in California. Or all those in Arizona, Pennsylvania, or more than 14 other states, according to Bureau of Prison data. New Jersey ranks fourth in prison deaths due to the coronavirus (43 as of Wednesday).
Unlike in jails and prisons around the country, every individual in the STU has completed his criminal sentence. Some completed their sentences long ago and have been held in the STU since it opened in 1999. At least one of the eight people who died committed his crime more than 30 years ago, in the 1980s. Experts say America’s way of dealing with individuals convicted of sex crimes has long been cruel, unjust, and counterproductive. In the pandemic era, it’s become fatal.