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‘Free thousands more inmates’: Advocates make push for relief from COVID in prisons

This story originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.

The crisis in the state’s correctional facilities has waned, admit most observers and inmate advocates, but the damage has been done to families around the state who’ve lost loved ones who died while in custody from COVID-related illnesses.

“If we had the ability months ago to set up an infrastructure that would allow for people to be released, we wouldn’t have seen the numbers we’ve seen today,” said Amol Sinha, executive director of the the American Civil Liberties Union in New Jersey.

The state’s department of corrections reports 49 COVID-related deaths and more than 3,000 infected, among those incarcerated in New Jersey. Advocates say the number of deaths is artificially low. And while around 360 inmates have been released under an executive order by the governor, there’s also a bill, which would make it easier for non-violent offenders in the final months of their sentences to get early release could affect up to 3,000 inmates. At a press conference today, advocates called on lawmakers to get it done, among them Bernice Ferguson, whose son Rory died of COVID-related illness just weeks before his scheduled release from a south Jersey halfway house.

“My son was a human being. And I am also a human being, too. Why wasn’t he given personal protective equipment? Why wasn’t he sent home to me when this deadly virus started making its way through these facilities,” Ferguson said. “Why didn’t I get a call about what was going on with my son? I feel like all my rights were taken away from me as a parent.”

Sen. Nellie Pou (D-Passaic) and Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson) are sponsors of the bill in their respective houses.

“COVID-19 brought devastation on people across the state. In particular though, I want us to focus on the fact that affect came upon people of color and especially in our prisons. Indeed, people of color have experienced significantly higher rate of infections, deaths and economic harm and other horrors from this pandemic,” Pou said.

“This is a matter of life, death and justice. When you’re dealing with a pandemic that has an ability to spread that depends on our inability to socially distance and quarantine, our prisons are just ill-equipped to handle it,” Mukherji said. “And when you look at the number of inmates as percentage of population that New Jersey has relative to the rest of the country and yet the highest prison death rate from COVID-19, the fifth highest infection rate.”

The Senate version of the bill has passed. The Assembly version is up for a vote Thursday. Gov. Phil Murphy supports the bills, conceptually, says his office. Advocates and families are calling for a swift progression from passage to signing, hoping to avoid any more deaths as the threat of a second wave looms.

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