AFSC PRISON WATCH staff member indicates “this is a good step in the right direction.”
NEWARK, NJ (October 19, 2020) Today, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed the Public Health Emergency Act – a bill that will give up to 3000 people the possibility of earning time off their sentence during the COVID-19 pandemic. The legislation’s passage was the result in part of the tireless organizing by the American Friends Service Committee’s (AFSC) Prison Watch Program and their partners.
“This was an enormous effort borne out of AFSC’s years of coalition work with survivors, family members, formerly imprisoned people, organizations, and advocates,” said Bonnie Kerness, coordinator of AFSC’s Prison Watch Program. “In a pandemic, every sentence is a potential death sentence. We need to bring as many people home as possible, and this is a good step in the right direction.”
When the pandemic began, AFSC and partners sent letters to the Governor, superintendents and legislators asking them to provide Personal Protective Equipment, masks, hand sanitizers, and other protective measures within the prisons, but reports from people imprisoned in New Jersey and their loved ones made it clear this was not happening. AFSC put the testimonies from people inside of the state’s prisons in their newsletter, “From the Inside Out,” which was then sent again to the Governor, administrators and legislators. The testimonies documented pervasive problems with access to sanitation, effective quarantine, and testing.
AFSC worked with the ACLU, All of Us or None, NJ Institute for Social Justice, juvenile justice and immigrant rights victims and organizations and others to craft a bill that would allow people who were within one year of release the opportunity to return to their families and communities.
“The passing of this bill via the Senate and Assembly was wonderful,” said Deb Johnson, whose son is currently incarcerated in New Jersey. “The signing of the bill by the Governor is superb and the work of the AFSC and other coalition members is Priceless! As a mother and advocate, knowing that your son or daughter is coming home and is not dying inside due to COVID19 is a blessing.”
The passage of this bill in New Jersey also comes on the heels of protests and activities across the country, mobilizing using the hashtag #FreeThemAll and demanding that people be released from prisons, jails, and detention centers.
“If incarceration stopped violence, the U.S. would be the safest country in the world,” said Lewis Webb, Program Director of the American Friends Service Committee’s (AFSC) Healing Justice NY program. “Instead, we have 2.3 million people in cages while our communities lack access to quality health care, education, employment, addiction and mental health services, and an approach to justice that actually addresses the root causes of violence. We hope other states will look to what New Jersey is doing and take similar actions to decarcerate their prisons and jails.”
The American Friends Service Committee is a Quaker organization that includes people of various faiths who are committed to social justice, peace and humanitarian service. Its work is based on the belief in the worth of every person and faith in the power of love to overcome violence and injustice