Tears, hugs and fresh clothes: New Jersey prisoners rejoice at release

By Tracey Tully, Nate Schaweber, Kevin Aramstrong, Hahna Yoon, Jonah Markowitz and Michelle Gustafson

Brenton McPherson took a long sip of fresh air, borrowed a stranger’s phone to call his mother and walked across a busy highway Wednesday toward a train station, his back turned away from a hulking state prison for what he hoped was the last time.

After five years, the 35-year-old father of two was free.

“I tell him this is his last chance,” his mother, Christine Guidas, said after wrapping him in a hug outside a McDonald’s in Trenton.

“Look! I’m bigger than you,” his 15-year-old son — who was 10 when Mr. McPherson was convicted of second-degree robbery — teased from the back of a black minivan.

He was, by at least four inches.

McPherson was one of 2,258 inmates released on Wednesday from prisons and halfway houses across New Jersey in one of the largest-ever single-day reductions of any state’s prison population.

Only prisoners within a year of completing sentences for crimes other than murder and sexual assault are eligible to be released up to eight months early.

Over the coming months, another 1,167 prisoners will be freed to reduce the risks of the coronavirus in crowded lockups where social distancing is next to impossible. In all, the releases will result in a roughly 35% reduction in New Jersey’s prison population since the start of the pandemic.

The initiative grew out of legislation signed into law last month and comes at a moment of intense national debate over transforming a criminal justice system that imprisons people of color in disproportionate numbers.

But politics and criminal justice policy were far from the minds of most people waiting in crowds to spot their loved ones walking out of prison gates, or off buses and trains, into their arms.

Outside Northern State Prison in Newark, a line of cars stretched along the road early on Wednesday.

Allan Campbell, a 41-year-old Passaic County man imprisoned for a parole violation, was released around 7 a.m. His mother, who had traveled to Newark from Paterson, had expected him to be let out in the afternoon, so he waited on the roadside for a ride.

“I’m so glad to get out — I just thank God,” said Campbell, dressed in a freshly issued pair of jeans and a white shirt.

The released prisoners were easy to spot: Each carried a white mesh laundry bag filled with manila envelopes that held their prison health records, state ID cards and leaflets about addiction treatment programs and re-entry services.

The uncle of a 32-year-old man who was leaving New Jersey State Prison in Trenton after more than a decade passed around his cellphone so the half-dozen men waiting to take a train toward home could create PIN codes for the bank debit cards that held the balance of their commissary accounts.

The men spoke of people they knew who had contracted the virus, and the lockdown measures in place since March that kept them inside small rooms with a bunk mate for as many as 23 hours a day.

Campbell said a man in his unit died of COVID-19, one of at least 52 virus-related inmate fatalities in New Jersey prisons. He said he had worried about getting the virus, and in June he was quarantined for seven days with a fever of 100.7.

Deborah Walker said she could not sleep Tuesday night, anxious about the two-hour drive to Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, New Jersey, and her reunion with Shameka Henry, 32, a young woman she considers her daughter.

Walker began to cry as she embraced Henry, who cried, too.

Then Henry, who was serving time for burglary and assault, changed into fresh clothes and a pair of Timberland boots that Walker had brought, and made quick work of her prison garb: She stuffed the uniform into a plastic bag and tossed it into a dumpster across the parking lot.

Opponents of the bill, which was the first legislative initiative of its kind in the country, said they were worried about releasing so many inmates at once and potentially creating a public safety risk.

Assemblyman Jon M. Bramnick, the Republican minority leader, said he opposed the bill because it included people convicted of certain violent crimes.

Reed Gusciora, the mayor of Trenton, where killings have more than doubled since last year, has said he was concerned that many of the people returning home early will be unable to find jobs and will return to the patterns that put them behind bars in the first place.

Prisoners in all state lockups are tested regularly for the virus, and the infection rate is now less than 1% after surging in the spring. But the legislation, which enables prisoners to earn credit for time served during the health crisis, is binding, and even those who had contracted the virus had to be released if they were eligible.

Dr. Mark Wade, the director of the Department of Health and Human Wellness in Newark, said he called the state on Tuesday to ask for enough rapid COVID-19 tests so that each of the 160 people who were expected to arrive in Newark after being released from prison could be assessed.

Not only did the state send the tests, Wade said, but it provided workers to administer them.

Anyone who did test positive would be taken to a hotel to quarantine, he said.

Volunteers from an array of social justice organizations and re-entry groups fanned out to greet people at major train stations across the state.

At the New Jersey Transit station in Somerville, two volunteers lined up sweaters, coats, masks and bottles of hand sanitizer near a large sign that read, “Welcome Home.”

“Would you like a doughnut?” Catherine Lent, a volunteer with American Reentry Initiative, asked a woman who was headed to Camden and still wearing her correctional facility ID badge clipped to her prison-issued sweatpants.

“Oh, my God!” said the woman, Ronnelle Boyce. “Yes!”

Boyce, 37, tried on coats and gloves and claimed a roller suitcase to carry the new clothing.

“I just chose the wrong path before,” Boyce, who was imprisoned for aggravated assault, said before running off to catch a train. “I’m not going back. This is all a blessing!”

After the train left with a dozen newly released women on board, a denim jacket, issued by the New Jersey Department of Corrections, still hung on a railing. A half-full cup of coffee sat beneath it.

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