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In a pandemic, justice delayed denies people their humanity – and their lives | Opinion

Senator Nellie Pou | August 16, 2020 | Star-Ledger |


These last months have been some of the most challenging in my time as a legislator. As the coronavirus pandemic spread through New Jersey like wildfire in early March, all of our state systems and our government fought to respond to the tidal waves of need.

My office has received hundreds of phone calls, emails, and pleas for support in the face of the crisis. Many of these calls were from terrified constituents with loved ones in prisons and juvenile facilities facing daily fears of infection and death from COVID-19.

In this historic fight, the government has a clear role to play: advance public health, save lives and consider the needs of the most vulnerable among us.

Lawmakers in New Jersey took the first step toward answering part of that urgent call on July 30 when they gave bipartisan support to amendments on a bill that would stem the tide of death in our prisons by speeding up the release of people whose sentences are nearly complete. We need to cross the finish line by approving the bill when it comes up for a vote this month.

That legislation, S2519/A4235, will help ensure that no one is left behind, much less left fearful of contracting a deadly illness with no cure.

This terror is justified. COVID-19 has wrought devastation on people across the state, in particular people of color, and especially those in our prisons. Indeed, people of color have experienced significantly higher rates of infection, death, economic harm and other horrors from this pandemic. Already notorious for having the worst Black-white racial disparities in its prisons, New Jersey now also has the worst rate of COVID-related prison deaths in the entire country. Those deaths are disproportionately impacting Black New Jerseyans and other people of color.

We as a state, like the rest of the country, have identified essential safety measures that most New Jerseyans have incorporated into their lives to contain the spread of the virus: social distancing, washing hands and wearing masks. People in prisons do not have the same opportunities to embrace these safety measures.

Prisons were not designed with physical distancing in mind. As public health and criminal justice experts have repeatedly told us, social distancing is impossible there. Other measures involving personal protective equipment (PPE) were employed far too late inside prisons to be used. In some cases, incarcerated people who resorted to creating their own PPE were punished.

People housed in prisons and juvenile facilities had no access to information for weeks about COVID-19, aside from what they could piece together from family, friends and attorneys. Inside prison walls, people live in densely populated close quarters, where people must share toilets, showers, and eating environments. People come into contact with one another daily during group movements, like getting medication, going to commissary, doing laundry and eating in the cafeteria. As people began exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, the New Jersey Department of Corrections responded at a glacial pace and incarcerated people, corrections officers and medical staff began to die.

All of this was foreseeable and much of it preventable. New Jersey officials assert that Black lives matter but statistics and agency actions suggest otherwise. There is still, however, an opportunity to act. We can and must do better.

That’s why I introduced S2519/A4235 along with my colleagues Senator Sandra B. Cunningham, Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter and Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson. The bill provides for the swift release of people due to come home within eight months, with a few limitations. We encourage our colleagues to support this bill and vote it out of the Legislature, and we encourage the governor to sign it quickly.

New Jersey has fought hard to reduce infection rates and deaths throughout our state. And yet, those behind prison walls are contained in highly infectious, crowded, dangerous spaces and they will continue to die. They deserve to have the state act and are calling for it. Their loved ones, advocacy groups, unions and law enforcement – our constituents as lawmakers – are demanding our state to act to protect the lives of those living in our prisons and juvenile facilities.

We must extend justice to those who we have left behind, by releasing those who will be coming home soon. We can no longer wait for justice to be realized. Justice has been consistently delayed but something more profound than even justice has been denied. At stake is our humanity. What’s deprived is people’s lives. We can no longer deny the responsibility we owe to each other, and we must act now.

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