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“Man they should’ve left me in Northern State. I don’t know why they brought me down here to Trenton to release me. Now, I got to use the only $50 I got to get to Newark,” I overheard a prisoner lament here in the New Jersey State Prison (NJSP). 

He had originally been scheduled to be released from Northern State Prison in Newark within four months, but he was moved as part of the state’s plans to release prisoners early amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He now had to get back because his sole family member, his 87-year-old grandmother, lived there.

In April 2020, Gov. Phil Murphy issued Executive Order 124 , which granted early release to certain prisoners. Despite the COVID-19 restrictions, dozens and dozens of prisoners were transferred over the next few months to NJSP’s special housing units on North Compound B-Block. 

These units were first emptied by placing regular NJSP prisoners into a court-condemned unit called 7-wing. Most transfers were young boys coming from minimum security institutions or youth facilities. They looked out of place because NJSP is a maximum security prison. 

A day after Election Day, with all the pomp and grandeur, the NJSP released almost 70 prisoners. A cadre of state and local media were present in front of the main entrance to the prison to report on this mass release from a maximum security prison. 

Later on that day, pictures of newly-released baffled-looking young prisoners in state-issued white shirts, navy blue jeans, and matching denim jackets were on TV. The release was positioned as an act of mercy, but it was as misplaced as the prisoners who looked lost standing outside the NJSP front entrance holding their property bags.

Instead of granting actual relief by releasing at-risk older prisoners with decades behind bars, NJDOC only released prisoners who were already scheduled for release within a year. 

Usually when a prisoner gets closer to a release date, he is moved from a maximum security prison to a medium security facility, and then eventually to a minimum security facility. This is meant to be a step-by-step process toward the final release of a prisoner back to society. 

When the remainder of the sentence is down to 18 months or lower, most prisoners are sent to camps or half-way houses for release. Over this gradual period, they receive the help of additional educational, vocational, or other social and civic assistance programs to make the transition as easy as possible.  

The half-way houses are normally designated by the county a prisoner originally came from. For example, those from Essex County will most likely get appointed to a half-way house in Newark. Even when a prisoner is made to “max-out,” or finish their sentence in a state prison, they are normally released from a medium or lower security facility. 

But, with the Nov. 4 release, all of the regular procedures were set aside and the prisoners were brought to NJSP in Trenton for a grand release. Some prisoners had family members who came to pick up their loved ones, but others were left with $50, a bag of their property from their original arrest, and a “religious package” including either a Bible or Qur’an, a few brochures from the social services department containing information on drug rehab centers, and contacts for job assistance organizations.

The question remains as to why this whole release happened. The answer seems obvious: the optics of releasing prisoners from NJSP makes major headlines and quells some public pressure for reforming the New Jersey judicial system, which has the worst racial disparity in the country. According to the Sentencing Project, Black people are incarcerated at a rate that is 12 times higher than White people. 

As nationwide protests continue regarding social justice, prison, and sentence reforms, and as a  new administration takes over at the federal level, it will be interesting to see how New Jersey in particular tackles its racial disparity in prosecuting and oppressing the Black and Brown minorities.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Tariq MaQbool is a writer incarcerated in New Jersey. He maintains Captive Voices, a blog where he shares his poetry and essays as well as the writings of other incarcerated people. His work has been published in The Marshall Project, NJ Star Ledger, Slant'd magazine and The News Station.