TRENTON — Civil-rights activists are stepping up pressure on the state to more quickly release people from state prisons, where 544 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 and 43 have died.

More than 600 Department of Corrections employees have also tested positive for the virus, according to state data.

Activists held a town-hall meeting Thursday morning, followed by a virtual vigil on Facebook at night. They plan a funeral procession May 28 in which participants will drive by the Trenton War Memorial, the building near the Statehouse where Gov. Phil Murphy does his daily coronavirus briefings.

New Jersey has the highest rate of prison deaths in the country, said Sarah Fajardo, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. She said it’s nearly triple the rate of New York and more than New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts combined.

“These numbers highlight what New Jerseyans have known for months – that rapid and urgent decarceration is core to saving lives,” Fajardo said.

Oliver Barry, an attorney for the family of Tiffany Mofield, who died at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, said the family hasn’t yet received information about her care and why she wasn’t taken to a hospital.

“There are very legitimate questions about the ability of the correctional system to provide adequate care, adequate preventative measures such as social distancing, given the practical problems that are faced,” Barry said.

Murphy signed an executive order April 10 that made more than 1,000 people eligible for immediate release due to the health crisis, but fewer than 100 have been released. The Rev. Charles Boyer, founder of Salvation and Social Justice, called it “a massive and devastating situation.”

Boyer advocates that Murphy provide clemency through pardons to inmates who are near release, incarcerated on nonviolent drug charges or elderly. He also suggests the state enact a law extending a ‘COVID credit’ that takes a year off every inmate’s sentence, which would immediately release nearly 4,000 people.

“There are thousands within New Jersey’s state prisons whose lives can be saved if our elected leaders take action,” Boyer said.

Bernice Ferguson said her son, Rory Price, was scheduled to be furloughed this month but instead died after contracting the virus. She said “they stole my baby’s life” and suggested some should be held accountable by going to prison.

“I had so much planned for him. I was going to throw this big party for my son, and I don’t get to do that,” Ferguson said. “So the party I had to plan for my son was to go to heaven.”

Trena Parks said the state took no action to shield her brother, Darrell, despite warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that prisons would be a hotspot.

“Gov. Murphy and the state of New Jersey and New Jersey State Prison, you were the executioners that decided what my brother Darrell Parks’ last mile of the way would be,” Parks said. “And I can only imagine that last mile being a dark, dreary and lonely road that didn’t afford him the opportunity to be comforted by loved ones.”

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