Activists hold funeral procession in Trenton for prisoners who have died in NJ due to COVID-19

A procession of vehicles drove past the War Memorial on Thursday afternoon to raise awareness about the plight of prisoners in New Jersey and remember inmates who have died from COVID-19 complications.

Advocates for prisoners’ rights say the state’s management of the pandemic inside prisons has been a total failure and that there has been a lack of transparency from the prison system administration.

The #SayTheirNames funeral procession was coordinated by the New Jersey Campaign for Alternatives To Isolated Confinement Coalition to remember the prisoners and call on the state to change its policies and procedures.

New Jersey has the highest per capita rate of COVID-19 related prison deaths in the nation at 238 deaths per 100,000 prisoners. More than 43 inmates have died, and 1,592 prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19 in the state.

“The state has been completely ineffective,” said organizer Amos Caley before the funeral procession. “Furloughs were supposed to release almost 3,000 people.”

Family members of inmates who died as a result of COVID-19 said because of how the state handled the situation, their loved ones died in prison even though they had never been given a death sentence.

“Instead of taking responsibility and trying to do better, your advisors have chosen to diminish the gravity of the situation,” said the Rev. Charles Boyer of Salvation and Social Justice.

Advocates say New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy’s Executive Order No. 124 was supposed to help the vulnerable prison population. “It has been an inexcusable failure of epic proportions,” the funeral procession organizers said in a statement. “Meanwhile, as the governor continues to hide behind the Department of Corrections and the Juvenile Justice Commission, human beings are dying every day and leaving their loved ones with little more to mourn than a memory and a bad excuse. They were never supposed to be sentenced to death but Gov. Murphy has done just that.”

Murphy defended the actions of his administration at his daily press briefing on Thursday afternoon, saying eligibility for prison furloughs was subject to a comprehensive review. He said inmates were required to have a place to live after they were released, for example.

“I mourn the loss of every single life in this state. Period. Full stop,” Murphy said.

The New Jersey Supreme Court is weighing the release of more prisoners. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and the state’s public defender told the court on Wednesday that the process for furloughing non-violent inmates and those at a higher risk of COVID-19 complications has lacked both urgency and transparency. They asked the court to speed up the release of prisoners and expand eligibility, arguing that prisoners scheduled to finish their sentences within a year should be considered for release.

Assistant Attorney General Stephanie Cohen, who represented the New Jersey Department of Corrections at the day-long video hearing, said the release of prisoners so far, along with enhanced cleaning measures at prisons and more testing, were adequate to protect prisoners and staff. She also said inmate hospitalizations have declined.