‘Say their names!’: Families protest mounting COVID-19 deaths in N.J. prisons

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Pastor Jeanette Brewer carries a sign for her brother, Terrence Brewer, who is in custody in New Jersey and has been hospitalized for COVID-19. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Pastor Jeanette Brewer carries a sign for her brother, Terrence Brewer, who is in custody in New Jersey and has been hospitalized for COVID-19. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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Rain came down as Tyrone Mitchell belted the hymn “Last Mile of the Way” in a parking lot outside the Richard J. Hughes Justice Complex in Trenton on Thursday.

His godmother, Trena Parks, stood nearby, sobbing behind a black protective mask. Just moments earlier, she had delivered a stirring rebuke of Gov. Phil Murphy over the 43 people in state custody who have lost their lives to COVID-19, including her brother Darrell.

“Gov. Murphy, what is your idea of protective care?” she said. “Is it being stuffed into a box with 18,000 other individuals during a global pandemic? Is being handcuffed to a hospital bed, near death, considered custody? I don’t think so.”

Trena Parks tears up as she talks about her brother, Darrell Parks, who died in prison of COVID-19. Parks participated in a funeral procession in Trenton for the 43 COVID-19 victims who have died in custody in New Jersey. (Emma LeWHYY)e

Dozens of family members, activists, religious leaders and other supporters then climbed in their cars for a short drive around the Trenton War Memorial as Murphy delivered his daily news briefing inside.

“Say their names!” they cried of the dead, none of whom Murphy has mentioned during his daily litany of “precious lives” lost.

Led by a hearse, the chain of cars was equal parts funeral procession and protest — a somber display of anger at what participants say is the administration’s failure to keep incarcerated people safe that is also the subject of an ongoing court battle.

Despite some releases, deaths mount

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. On April 10, Murphy signed an executive order creating a process to send some people home from prison during the coronavirus pandemic.

Eligible prisoners include those 60 or older, those with medical conditions that put them at high risk of death from COVID-19, those denied parole in the past year and those due to be released or paroled in the next three months.

Nearly 3,000 people met one of those criteria, out of the roughly 18,000 people in New Jersey prisons, youth facilities and halfway houses. Advocates were hopeful those folks would soon be out of facilities whose cramped quarters make them coronavirus hotspots.

A procession of cars winds through Trenton in protest of the treatment of incarcerated people who are vulnerable to severe COVID-19 symptoms. Forty-three have died in custody. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

But six weeks later, just 607 prisoners had been approved for home confinement or parole, and only 337 had actually been released, the state disclosed in a May 22 court filing.

Meanwhile, New Jersey has earned the dubious distinction of having the highest COVID-19 death rate among incarcerated people in the nation, according to The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization tracking those cases.

Another nearly 1,600 people in state custody have tested positive for the virus — at a positivity rate of 14% — as have more than 700 staff members.

Among incarcerated minors, 28 people have tested positive for COVID-19 as of May 20.

Asked about the protest Thursday, Murphy defended his administration’s implementation of the executive order.

“It allowed for the eligibility of a certain number of people to be released subject to a comprehensive review, including among other things, where were they going when they got out? Did they have housing? Did they have sustenance in their life?” he said. “We take that very seriously and want to make sure it’s not just a blunt instrument that we’re using, but we’re taking this one person at a time.”

He also expressed sympathy for the 11,401 residents who have so far lost their lives to COVID-19.

“My strong wish [is] that no one would have died in either incarceration, in a long-term care facility, in a hospital, in a home, in a home for developmentally disabled, a psychiatric hospital, a veteran’s hospital,” he said. “I mourn the loss of every single life in this state. Period. Full Stop.”

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Ongoing court battle

Earlier this week, attorneys for the state were in court defending the executive order from a challenge by the Office of the Public Defender and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Those organizations say the state has not acted swiftly enough to release prisoners and have asked the state Supreme Court to issue an emergency order allowing nonviolent prisoners and incarcerated minors within a year of release to be sent home.

They compare their request to an order the court issued in March that led to the release of nearly 700 people serving relatively short sentences in county jails.

They also want more transparency in how the Department of Corrections makes its release decisions and for incarcerated people to have a greater say in the process. ACLU attorney Alexander Shalom said during oral arguments Wednesday that, for example, prisoners can be denied release because officials object to their proposed housing plan, but the prisoners never have the opportunity to provide alternatives.

“There’s no follow up communication to say, ‘You’ve been rejected because we found that insufficient,’ which might trigger an incarcerated person to say, ‘Oh, what about my brother? What about my aunt? I have these alternative ideas,’” Shalom said.

The state, in contrast, said in court filings that it has diligently managed a process of incredible complexity — one in which they not only must consider the health risks to prisoners, but also gather input from victims and prosecutors.

It also rejects the comparison to county jails — “the risk of releasing inmates with serious criminal records and convictions from state prison is different from the risk of releasing inmates with disorderly persons offenses,” attorneys for the state wrote — and says it has taken extraordinary steps to protect prisoners, including limiting person-to-person contact in state facilities and screening everyone who enters.

The Supreme Court is yet to rule in the case.

Demanding equal treatment

Trena Parks, of Freehold, said her brother Darrell was 29 years into serving a life sentence for murder when he died last month and would not have been eligible for release under Murphy’s executive order.

But she said that at age 62, with diabetes, high blood pressure and hepatitis, he deserved to be safe, same as anybody else.

“They didn’t send him to the infirmary,” she said. “They didn’t take their most vulnerable and put them out of harm’s way. They left him in general population, and that’s where he stayed the whole time until they took him out and took him to the hospital.”

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