2,258 New Jersey prisoners will be released in a single day

By Tracey Tully

In a sweeping acknowledgment of the risks of the coronavirus in cramped prisons, New Jersey will release more than 2,000 inmates Wednesday as part of one of the largest-ever single-day reductions of any state’s prison population.

More than 1,000 additional prisoners will be released in the coming weeks and months after earning early-release credits for time served during the health crisis — resulting in a roughly 35% reduction in New Jersey’s prison population since the pandemic began ravaging Northeast states in March.

Beyond the health imperatives, the emptying of prisons and jails comes at a moment when there is intense national debate over transforming a criminal justice system that ensnares people of color in disproportionate numbers.

In New Jersey, supporters of the freeing of prisoners said it would not only help make prisons safer but would also build on the state’s efforts to create a fairer penal system. But opponents said they were worried about releasing so many inmates at once and potentially posing a public safety risk in communities where they end up.

The mass releases were made possible by a bill that passed with bipartisan support in the New Jersey Legislature and was signed into law last month by Gov. Philip D. Murphy, a Democrat, as part of the first legislative initiative of its kind in the country.

Prisoners in New Jersey within a year of completing sentences for crimes other than murder and sexual assault are eligible to be released as many as eight months early. They will be freed through the gates of state prisons and halfway houses, or driven by bus to transit hubs to begin treks to the county where they last lived, according to state officials and criminal justice advocates.

The releases are set to start less than 24 hours after polls closed on one of the most consequential Election Days in modern history, amid concerns about the potential for civil unrest after President Donald Trump repeatedly sought to sow distrust in the voting process itself.

Assemblyman Jon M. Bramnick, the Republican minority leader, said he opposed the bill because it included people convicted of certain violent crimes and left too many questions unanswered.

“The legislation is way too broad for me to give my rubber stamp,” Bramnick said. “Is the public aware of who is being released and where they are going?”

Other states have made large coronavirus-related reductions to their prison populations this year, including Connecticut and California. California’s governor ordered the release of about 8,000 nonviolent offenders and two weeks ago was told by a judge to free or transfer 1,500 inmates from San Quentin, the state’s oldest and most notorious prison where more than 2,000 inmates contracted the virus and 28 have died from it.

New Jersey had already released nearly 1,000 inmates early from its prison system under a pandemic-related executive order in April and freed close to 700 people from its county jails after a legal challenge.

But the decision to take a systemwide step on a single day is unique and has drawn criticism from the mayor of Trenton, the state’s capital where gun violence is surging, and from lawmakers in Cumberland County, home to three sprawling state prisons.

Those who fought for the releases have argued that there was no time to waste in a state where the virus was seeping anew into prison populations after tapering off in the summer following outbreaks that killed at least 52 inmates.

The infection rate in state prisons is now below 1%, but a federal prison in Fort Dix in central New Jersey is experiencing an outbreak involving at least 166 inmates and 10 staff members. An additional 41 people at Fort Dix have recovered from COVID-19, federal officials said.

State correction officials have said the 2,258 people being released Wednesday will leave with necessary prescription medicines and state ID cards, which are crucial for applying for social services.

Social service teams have also provided housing and transportation assistance, as well as food stipends for those with minimal financial resources, according to Liz Velez, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections.

“We are taking a process that normally takes six months and compressing it into a very short time-frame,” a spokesman for the governor, Michael Zhadanovsky, said in a statement.

Multiple state agencies have been “working diligently” with local officials, Zhadanovsky added, “to identify areas of anticipated need and fill those gaps with necessary resources so that people can thrive in their communities.”

James E. McGreevey, the former governor who now runs New Jersey Re-entry Corporation, a nonprofit that contracts with the state to help people transition out of prison, said the number of soon-to-be released inmates who had been signed up for Medicaid had increased over the past several weeks after a slow start.

This, he said, was a positive sign that would help them to access vital health and addiction treatment services.

Criminal justice advocates are preparing to fan out across the state at prisons and transit hubs to offer a friendly welcome and to help connect new arrivals access social services.

But even advocates who fought for passage of the bill have been critical of its implementation.

“We stand as ready as we can be, but we’re getting mostly really halfhearted gestures from the state,” said J. Amos Caley, lead organizer for New Jersey Prison Justice Watch, a coalition of social justice advocacy organizations that championed the bill. “It’s felt like we’ve been either dragging them along, or educating them at every step, or just outright wrestling with them.”

Justice Watch volunteers will be dressed in red and will be handing out bags filled with masks and information about area homeless shelters and social service groups.

To find the former inmates, volunteers will look for telltale garb: gray sweatpants and a gray sweatshirt.

“And they’ll be carrying a white mesh laundry bag, holding all their possessions,” Caley said.

Deb Johnson, 55, said she planned to be helping out at a bus and train station in Camden, New Jersey, and dreaming of the day her 30-year-old son, who was convicted of a weapons possession charge, walks out of South Woods State Prison. Under the bill, he is eligible for early release before Christmas.

“For me, it’s bittersweet,” Johnson said. “It’s sweet because it’s my child. I get to hold him a little sooner, especially during the holidays that we haven’t shared in five years. But there’s still a lot of other people who are incarcerated and could die.”

Since March, more than 252,000 people in jails and prisons across the country have been infected with the virus, and at least 1,450 inmates and correctional officers have died, according to a New York Times database.

“You have a child who has done something to get them incarcerated,” Johnson said. “But now you’re worried that you’re going to be getting a phone call telling you your son is dead.”

Jessica S. Henry, a former public defender who is now a criminal justice professor at Montclair State University, said the confusion accompanying Wednesday’s release underscored problems that existed with the prison re-entry process long before the pandemic.

“They are often released with $10, a bus ticket and the shirt on their back, and wished good luck,” Henry said.

Amid a pervasive virus that has left hundreds of thousands residents out of work, the challenges are compounded.

“You’re releasing people because of the pandemic, into the pandemic,” she said. “Unless there are safe places for them to go, what are we doing with all these people to make sure they can begin to build new lives?”

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