ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — “They stole my baby’s life.” This lamentation from a devastated mother – whose son died from coronavirus while awaiting furlough from a New Jersey prison – is just one of many heartbreaking tales of loss to emerge from the state’s penal system.
As of Wednesday, there were 515 inmates with confirmed cases of COVID-19 in state-run prisons. Of those, 41 deaths have been linked to the disease, a 7.9 percent fatality rate, according to a state database.
According to the ACLU of New Jersey, it’s the highest death rate of any state prison system in the nation, with numbers “exceeding most other states’ prison deaths combined.” It’s not just inmates who risk catching the virus; 599 people employed with the New Jersey Department of Corrections have been infected, too.
The rising death count has family members and advocates demanding action.
“People in prisons are terrified,” said the Rev. Charles Boyer of advocacy group Salvation and Social Justice.
“Their loved ones reach out every day to let us know how difficult and cruel it is to be confined in the midst of a pandemic,” Boyer stated. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, a jail or prison sentence can quickly turn into a death sentence.”
READ MORE: NJ Coronavirus Updates (Here’s What You Need To Know)
On Thursday, advocates held a town hall meeting via Zoom, inviting relatives of deceased inmates to speak about their losses. (Watch the video below)
Trena Parks said her brother, Darrell, 62, was “always happy” and a “good person.” He loved to fish, dance and spend time with his family.
About 29 years ago, he was handed down a lengthy prison sentence, but wasn’t bitter or angry about it. Instead, he accepted the consequences of what he’d done and was focused on “doing his time,” Parks said.
But when the coronavirus began hitting New Jersey’s prisons, for some reason, Parks – who had a compromised immune system – wasn’t moved out of harm’s way, his sister said.
On April 8, after staff found Parks unable to breathe, they transported him to a nearby hospital, where he died less than two weeks later.
“You were the executioners that decided what my brother’s last mile would be,” Parks commented when asked what she’d say to Gov. Phil Murphy and the officials who run New Jersey’s prison system.
“I can only imagine that last mile being a dark, dreary and lonely road,” Parks added, breaking down in tears.
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‘THEY STOLE MY BABY’S LIFE’
On April 10 – fresh on the heels of a New Jersey Supreme Court order to release 1,000 inmates serving time in county prisons for minor crimes – Gov. Murphy announced the state was paving the way for thousands more to join them.
A short time afterward, Murphy signed an executive order that allowed some “low-risk” inmates in state prisons and halfway houses to be placed in temporary home confinement during the COVID-19 crisis. Released inmates will continue to be subject to Department of Corrections supervision.
To be eligible, inmates must face an increased risk of contracting COVID-19 because of their age or health status. Nobody convicted of a serious crime – such as murder, or sexual assault – will be considered, Murphy said.
But since then, activists allege that dismal progress has been made when it comes to actually getting inmates home. The numbers appear to support their claims.
According to New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC) spokesperson Liz Velez, 3,080 inmates in state custody were deemed potentially eligible for home release under the terms of Murphy’s executive order.
But placement on a referral list doesn’t guarantee release, Velez added.
“The review committee must first determine if an individual can benefit from temporary emergency medical home confinement,” Velez told Patch. “As part of the process we conduct thorough home investigations to ensure it’s safe for the released and those in the dwelling. We also notify the prosecutors and victims and test those being released for COVID-19, among other steps that take into account the delicate balance between public health and public safety.”
It’s a gauntlet that many inmates don’t make it through. As of Thursday, just 116 inmates have been released. Another 41 are approved for release and awaiting the final go-ahead.
Meanwhile, dozens of people have died in state custody due to the virus, according to the ACLU of New Jersey. One of them was Bernice Ferguson’s son – her “first love.”
Speaking during Thursday’s news conference, Ferguson said her son, Rory, just turned 39 in March. He was a “joyous young man” with a laugh that could make anyone happy.
He was approved for home release and was scheduled to come home last Saturday. And he and his mother had “so much to do” when he returned, Ferguson recalled with tears in her eyes. But then she got a call that her son had been rushed to the hospital.
Now, the grieving mother will have to visit a grave to spend time with her first-born child.
“Sure, children make bad decisions,” Ferguson said. “We all do. But to take somebody’s life … that’s what they did … they stole my baby’s life.”
During Gov. Murphy’s daily coronavirus news conferences, he regularly mentions the names of people who have died of the disease. But he hasn’t given a single tribute to an inmate who died in state custody.
That needs to change, advocates say.
On Thursday, with the prison death count now reportedly up to 42, activists announced that a “#SayTheirNames Funeral Procession” will be held on May 28 in Trenton to pay respect to the unnamed deceased.
According to activists, those people include: Ricky James, Tonny Kock, Peter Shanley, Chart Chavalaporn, Frank Silvera, Michael Wilson, Abdul Aziz Farrakhan, William Prell, James Trotman, Carmelo Herrera, Timothy Moorman, Qahhar Saabir, Vito Nigro, Calvert Buchanan, Elias Chalet, Thomas DeGroat, William Conway, Roberto Rivera, Robert Livingston, N’namdi Azikiwe, David Brown, Darrell Parks, Morgan Youngblood, Candido Casarez, Michael Bright, Calvert McKenzie, Tiffany Mofield, Denise Nagrodski, Anthony Brown, Rory S. Price, Robert Brown, Kevin Ellington, Vincent Kurczewski, Charles Ullery, Larry Yellock, Andrew Dixon, Jose Roman, Ricardo Williamson and Artis Kato.
NJ HALFWAY HOUSES: ‘WE EARNED OUR WAY HERE’
Advocates say the situation is just as dire in the state’s residential community release program (RCRP) facilities, otherwise known as “halfway houses.”
The facilities are supposed to be places where prison inmates nearing the end of their sentences can find work, get help with substance abuse and rally hope for a successful reentry. But lately, they’ve become pits of despair due to the COVID-19 crisis, family members allege.
As of Wednesday, there have been 19 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among inmates at state halfway houses, with one death connected to the virus.
However, many family members and advocates have questioned the accuracy of the state’s totals, alleging that a lack of testing and a fear of being sent back to prison is skewing the numbers.
A 60-year-old inmate at Tully House in Newark – speaking to Patch on condition of anonymity – said the facility is “overcrowded” and is short of medical staff. There’s no possible way to social distance while trapped inside a halfway house, he said, a claim that many advocates have also made.
Like several other halfway houses in New Jersey, Tully House is overseen by the DOC and managed by private corporations: Education & Health Centers of America Inc. and the GEO Group.
“Why is it taking so long for halfway house residents to be released to home confinement?” he questioned. “We’re prime candidates for the executive order 124. We didn’t just reach a period of time in our sentences and transfer to the halfway house system. We earned our way here.”
Many inmates at halfway houses have demonstrated good behavior, finished clinical programs and have been allowed to go to work at job sites unsupervised before the outbreak, he said.
“We left the facility, caught public transportation and returned back to the facility for months and for some years without any incident,” he told Patch. “This is a no-brainer.”
Another resident at Tully House offered Patch the following statement about a fellow inmate who recently tested positive for COVID-19:
“He was scheduled to go … they are starting to test people before they go home now. So he got tested and sent back to the program, and then found out five days later that he was positive for COVID-19, which blew my mind because the test take 24 to 48 hours to come back. So he was in the program with a positive result and they just let him sit there. After they took him, they moved the rest of his room down to a room that emptied out and are labeling it as it is a quarantine room. But these guys come out the room at every count, and they escort them through the building which would contaminate the building, one would think. But they let them out for a smoke break and the use the vending machines, and none of this is being wiped down. It’s bad for those guys too, though, because now they have to use the bathroom every four to five hours in between us having our rec time.”
The two residents of Tully House aren’t alone in their sentiments; family members have been reaching out to Patch with their own worries for weeks.
Gee Santiago, a Burlington resident with a husband at Tully House, said he was approved for early release and was awaiting COVID-19 test results last week. But then he tested positive with asymptomatic results, and was sent to East Jersey State Prison.
“He is going to be tested again today, and will be quarantine for the next 14 days on the medical unit,” Santiago said last Thursday.
“When I heard about it, I couldn’t sleep or eat, and cried all day,” she recalled. “Why are these residents being treating inhumane? They are someone’s son, grandson, husband, uncle, father and sibling. They have families who love them and worry about their safety.”
“Yes, they aren’t perfect, but who is?” she added.
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