Adam Baines takes a backpack from a New Jersey Reentry Corporation worker on Feb. 10, 2022. The backpacks carried winter clothes, non-perishable food items, and hygiene products.
The white bus stopped at the corner of Edison Place and Raymond Boulevard near Newark Penn Station just after 11 a.m. Thursday, dropping off two dozen now-former inmates of Northern State Prison.
The ex-offenders were greeted with hugs, handshakes, and calls of “welcome home.” Volunteers handed out phones and backpacks with canned food, hoodies, and gloves. A worker jotted down phone numbers before reuniting family members with their loved ones.
“This time, I’m leaving with at least a couple weeks of knowing what I’m doing,” said Anthony Burgos, a Staten Island resident incarcerated for six years at the Newark prison. “Last time, all I got released with was a prescription that was a dud. None of this.”
Burgos left prison Thursday with just a phone number scrawled on a Post-It Note. But with help from the nonprofit New Jersey Reentry Corporation, soon he had a new phone, plans to spend a few nights at a Motel 6 in Old Bridge, and an appointment to get a Medicaid card.
He was one of about 260 people released this week from prisons and halfway houses as part of the state’s early-release program, created in 2020 to protect prisoners and corrections staff from contracting COVID-19. More than 5,300 people have been released from prison since the law went into effect in November 2020.
Often, inmates are released with just their legal documents, letters from friends, and maybe leftover money from the commissary. No medication, no social security cards, sometimes no identification cards.
“You need an ID to do anything in this state,” said Jim McGreevey, the former governor and prison advocate who runs the New Jersey Reentry Corporation. Without state identification, he said, people can’t apply for housing or jobs, secure SNAP and other benefits, or access health care, including mental health medicine or addiction treatment.
On Thursday, the New Jersey Reentry Corporation set up a table in Peter Francisco Park, across the street from where the bus dropped off the newly-released ex-offenders. This is where volunteers handed out fliers with information about accessing the group’s services and the number for its 24/7 hotline.
Through a partnership with the state Department of Corrections, McGreevey’s re-entry group has helped thousands of ex-inmates. Demand for its programs spiked during the pandemic.
Liz Granovsky, an organizer who runs its Union County office, said they help formerly incarcerated people “for life,” but primarily focus on setting up the best foundation during the first nine months of their release. Then they try to stay in regular contact for another three years.
Burgos, who served time most recently for a parole violation and unpaid child support, exchanged numbers with Granovsky and Rutgers Law students, who encouraged him to visit the Middlesex County re-entry center Monday.
While McGreevey was on hold with Medicaid, he peppered Burgos with questions about whether he has medication and who he’s meeting in Old Bridge.
“Be good,” McGreevey shouted behind him as Burgos walked back toward Newark Penn Station.
“It’s a glorious day for this,” the former governor added quietly.
The law Murphy signed in 2020 allows prisoners to accrue public health credits, similar to earning time for good behavior. It applies to inmates who have less than a year left in their sentence. Prisoners jailed for murder or aggravated sexual assault, or who have been deemed repeat sex offenders, are not eligible for early release.
The early releases had been halted when Murphy ended the public health emergency in June, but after Murphy reinstated it on Jan. 11 amid the spike in cases due to the omicron variant, hundreds were released. On Thursday, Murphy signed an executive order extending the public health emergency for another 30 days, allowing more releases.
The move is not without its critics. State Sen. Anthony Bucco (R-Morris) said in a statement it’s “shocking” prisoners would be released days after the Urban Mayors Association met to discuss bail reform and rising crime rates.
“Instead of helping the mayors to address their serious concerns about public safety, Gov. Murphy is throwing gas on the fire by releasing hundreds of inmates into the very same communities where crime is already surging. It’s absolutely nuts and beyond tone-deaf,” Bucco said.
Last year, three inmates freed early were accused of murdering people after their release.
More than 10,000 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began, with over 28% occurring since the omicron surge in December, according to DOC data. It was the biggest surge in cases in New Jersey prisons since fall 2020.
Adam Baines caught the virus while he was behind bars. Although he was asymptomatic, he said he was placed in a unit with people coughing and visibly sick. He said he wasn’t told by prison staff that he tested positive, and heard it from other inmates instead.
“It wasn’t like you was given treatment and wasn’t anybody watching over us. You’re just placed in a unit with 50 other people, so whatever happens, happens, but I was scared,” the 32-year-old said.
Baines, who was in prison for four years and four months after pleading guilty to disarming a police officer, aggravated assault, and resisting arrest, said he was vaccinated after the DOC offered to shave 10 days off his sentence in exchange for the jab.
The 2020 law allowed him a release four months early. He found out about a month ago, he said, and has been reaching out to friends and family ever since. He filled out an intake form for McGreevet’s re-entry group while in prison, and will be using its services to secure a job and housing and set up a bank account, he said.
He departed prison Thursday holding a mesh bag filled with a folder of legal documents and letters friends had written over the last four years. He left Peter Francisco Park with what he called a “starter kit” for his new life.
He said he was headed to a walk-in shelter for a few days, and planned to visit his mother-in-law, who is in the hospital. Soon, he said, he hopes to cook breakfast for his two daughters, ages 5 and 7.
“They love my cooking, you know. They’re not looking forward to going out or anything, just me cooking a home-cooked meal,” he said. “Back to enjoying life, back to freedom.”
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