Skip to main content
Subscriber Exclusive

For prisoners freed early during COVID-19, a changed — and sometimes lonely — world awaits

Published Updated

BRIDGETON — Deborah Johnson turns away from New Jersey's largest prison, a behemoth of concrete and barbed wire, and waits. 

She grasps the door handle of her bright blue sedan to steady herself and watches two white vans roll into the gravel parking lot. 

Her oldest son, Ahmed Ismail, 30, lumbers down from one.  

“Heyyy, welcome home! Welcome home!” Deborah shouts, her mask unable to muffle her rapture and relief at the sight of her son. She claps gloved hands in the frigid December morning air.  

Ahmed’s arms wrap around his mother’s waist; hers stretch up — he's 8 inches taller than her 5-foot-3 frame  — to circle his broad shoulders.  

Ahmed Ismail 30, hugs his mother, Deb Johnson of Berlin, after taking a COVID-19 test on the day he was released South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton. A huge advocate for her son and other recently released prisoners, Johnson immediately took Ismail from the prison to have a friend test him for COVID-19 on December 10, 2020.
Ahmed Ismail 30, hugs his mother, Deb Johnson of Berlin, after taking a COVID-19 test on the day he was released South Woods State Prison... Ahmed Ismail 30, hugs his mother, Deb Johnson of Berlin, after taking a COVID-19 test on the day he was released South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton. A huge advocate for her son and other recently released prisoners, Johnson immediately took Ismail from the prison to have a friend test him for COVID-19 on December 10, 2020.
AMY NEWMAN, NORTHJERSEY.COM/ USA TODAY NETWORK

“Oh, God, oh, God, oh, God,” Deborah exhales into her son’s ear, her red-rimmed glasses fogging. She kisses his cheek and pats his head. He’s really there.  

“You‘re alive. You’re alive," she chants. “Oh, God, thank you, thank you.” 

This morning, Ahmed becomes one of the nearly 2,900 inmates who have been released as part of New Jersey’s latest effort to lower its prison population amid the coronavirus pandemic, a one-of-a-kind law that reduces sentences by up to eight months for time served as the virus ravaged vulnerable prison populations. 

But being released makes them vulnerable in a different way, reentry advocates and experts say, as they face the formidable challenges of finding homes and jobs and food. Finding those footholds amid a pandemic that has reshaped daily life for everyone can be even harder. 

The key to stability after incarceration is a social support network, the advocates say. Not everyone has someone waiting for them at the prison gates.  

“I’m starting from scratch," Ahmed says on his release day. “The only advantage I got is my family.” 

The story of each person released during the pandemic is singular, but the early days of freedom for three New Jersey men reveal both the challenges they face and the role of outside support they so vitally need: 

Ahmed embraces his mom as she cheers.

A father walks to the woman he will marry, who drives him home to the children they will raise together.

And a middle-aged man, released to no one, has two one-way tickets on NJ Transit and nowhere to go.

Ahmed Ismail released from South Woods State Prison

The virus

In 2015, Ahmed pleaded guilty to possessing a handgun during an altercation with a woman in Monroe. While waiting for sentencing, he was shot during another incident that led to a second weapons charge against him.

When a judge sentenced him to five years in prison, Ahmed was using crutches, still healing from the gunshot wound. He asked for more time before sentencing.  

Prisons can treat injuries, the judge told him. 

Five years later, the coronavirus infiltrated South Woods State Prison during its merciless march through every prison within the New Jersey Department of Corrections. 

At least 52 inmates and four corrections officers died of the virus, a death rate higher than in any other state prison system during the first wave of the pandemic. Thousands of inmates — about 20% of the total population — have tested positive for the virus since early April. 

State leaders sought to reduce the prison population, which public health experts and advocates say is the best way to keep the virus at bay. The virus thrives in prisons where social distancing is impossible.  

Gov. Phil Murphy issued an executive order in April allowing Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks to release inmates who were at elevated risk. But lawmakers did not think the Murphy administration went far enough, and in September they passed the bill that gave inmates within a year of release eight months off their sentences. 

Over 2,000 inmates were let go on a single day, Nov. 4, and since then about 600 others have been released under the law, according to the Department of Corrections. New Jersey has lowered its prison population by 30% during the pandemic, an aggressive reduction that outpaces dozens of other states. 

Ahmed believes he contracted the virus in February, before the state began testing. His body ached; breathing was such a challenge that talking on the phone was difficult.  

Deborah was there for him then, too. 

She told her son, “If the streets didn’t kill you, COVID is not going to.” 

Deborah waited, and she prayed. 

Faith alone

The Llorets’ dining room swells with children, the family’s pastor and his wife, the din of Christmas music, the clink of forks and the clatter of hungry kids who spent the morning behaving in church and are about to charge up on Sprite and Dr. Pepper. 

Homemade food crowds the table, sun streams in through two large windows, and all five chairs plus a long bench at the rectangular table are full.

"God is great, God is good, now we're thankful for our food, by his hands we all are fed, give us Lord our daily bread," recites Michaela, 16.

“Jesus’ name,” says Marisa Lloret, 39. “Amen.” 

"Amen," says Samuel Lloret, 35.

“Amen,” Pastor John Young says. 

“All right,” Marisa says. She shovels alfredo farfalle onto a plate. “Who needs meatballs?” 

Sam Lloret 35, Jacob Haimes 7, Marisa Lloret 39 and Julian Lloret 11, attend New Covenant Church in Audubon on Sunday, December 6, 2020. Sam is one of thousands of prisoners in New Jersey released early during the COVID-19 pandemic. The couple married on November 7, 2020, three days after Sam's release.
Sam Lloret 35, Jacob Haimes 7, Marisa Lloret 39 and Julian Lloret 11, attend New Covenant Church in Audubon on Sunday, December 6, 2020. Sam... Sam Lloret 35, Jacob Haimes 7, Marisa Lloret 39 and Julian Lloret 11, attend New Covenant Church in Audubon on Sunday, December 6, 2020. Sam is one of thousands of prisoners in New Jersey released early during the COVID-19 pandemic. The couple married on November 7, 2020, three days after Sam's release.
AMY NEWMAN, NORTHJERSEY.COM/ USA TODAY NETWORK

When Sam walked out of prison on Nov. 4, Marisa was waiting. She’d been waiting nearly 10 hours that day. Before that, she’d waited years.  

They met 12 years ago in a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. Her demon was Xanax; his, an addiction to pain medication that gave way to heroin.  

Marisa got clean. Sam couldn’t. One night in 2015, he was out of money and out of his mind, he says. 

He walked into an Italian restaurant with a shotgun and said he was robbing the place, according to police. Convicted of robbery with a threat of bodily injury, he got just shy of six years.  

In 2018, a few months after Marisa earned a master's degree in clinical counseling, Sam wrote Marisa a letter and said he wanted to reconnect.

Their relationship grew through letters — scribbled on white and yellow legal paper that Marisa keeps to this day — emails, calls and eventually in-person visits. Sam asked Marisa to find a list of employers that hire felons. Sam’s dad began babysitting Marisa’s kids, and she gave him a key to her house. 

The day before Christmas 2019, Sam asked his dad to make a special delivery to Marisa’s house in Clayton, timed to coincide with his morning call from South Woods: roses, a letter, a ring. 

She said yes by phone.  

They married in Sam’s family church three days after his release, a scheduling feat because the state gave them three different release dates. By that time, Sam had found a job refurbishing oil drums that pays $14 an hour. 

Sam Lloret 35, takes a plate of pasta from his wife, Marisa Lloret 39, during Sunday dinner after church with their family including Bella 14, Michael 15, Jacob 7 and their Pastor John Young and his wife Bette Young on December 6, 2020.  Sam is one of thousands of prisoners in New Jersey released early during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sam served almost six years for a 2015 armed robbery he committed.
Sam Lloret 35, takes a plate of pasta from his wife, Marisa Lloret 39, during Sunday dinner after church with their family including Bella 14,... Sam Lloret 35, takes a plate of pasta from his wife, Marisa Lloret 39, during Sunday dinner after church with their family including Bella 14, Michael 15, Jacob 7 and their Pastor John Young and his wife Bette Young on December 6, 2020. Sam is one of thousands of prisoners in New Jersey released early during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sam served almost six years for a 2015 armed robbery he committed.
AMY NEWMAN, NORTHJERSEY.COM/ USA TODAY NETWORK

Now, when Sam gets home each afternoon, Marisa is amid her workday, juggling therapy sessions. In between they balance the schedules of five children, ages 7 to 16, in their blended family.  

Sam is adjusting from the clockwork routines of prison to a loud, full household. Marisa says she’s a hot rod — always moving quickly, multitasking — while Sam is a Prius, steady and measured.  

Sam worries about whether his record will have a negative impact on his children, and about being able to support Marisa after his history of bad relationships. He believes God won’t give him anything he can’t handle. 

After dinner, Marisa sets out a Christmas plate filled with cream puffs and cannoli, and the gang of kids splits up to play outside or on their cellphones. 

In many other homes, this could seem like a routine Sunday. But in the eyes of advocates and experts in reentry, it has the signals of a success story. 

“If you’re going to point to the golden ticket for somebody for their successful stabilization, whether it’s somebody coming out of prison or a refugee, the golden ticket is social supports," says J. Amos Caley, who leads a coalition of reentry and prison reform advocates under the name New Jersey Prison Justice Watch. “It's how well can somebody be surrounded by a compassionate community that has the resources they need.” 

Housing, employment, social services such as food stamps and health care, transportation and identification are people's basic needs after release, advocates and experts say. Having those things can make the difference between whether someone falls into the 30% of people who return to prison within three years or the 70% who stay out. 

Family is reunited after father's early release from prison
Samuel Lloret and his family attend church and gather for Sunday dinner on December 6, 2020. Lloret reunited with his family after being released early from prison.
Michael Karas, NorthJersey.com

But many of those lifelines have become scarce amid the COVID pandemic.  

“Reentry is different; all the effects are compounded,” says Tarika Daftary Kapur, a professor of justice studies at Montclair State University.  

People returning from prison already risk isolation. Now, the world is purposefully socially distancing. 

"Not being able to stay in contact with friends and family or being able to reconnect with friends and family who are also going through adversity, just like everyone else is, just makes things more challenging, making people more at risk of recidivism,” she says.  

Sam Lloret
“These (inmates) are still human beings."

Unemployment has soared to record highs. Doctor visits and addiction treatment take place on a computer or cellphone, a convenience for some that can be a burden for people who have been incarcerated and aren’t tech-savvy. Motor vehicle offices, which supply identification cards, frequently close because of virus cases. 

For Sam, even here in the safest place he knows, his time in prison looms. 

Sitting at the head of table, next to his father, as Marisa washes skyscrapers of dishes crowding the kitchen counter, Sam talks about his years in South Woods.  

He talks about seeing men die on his unit and the fear of COVID spreading through the prison. About the constant exhaustion of life in an environment of anger, about the bunkie with night terrors, about the raw necessity of projecting rage to keep himself safe. About how the state did little, he says, to help him or other inmates get ready to get out. 

“These guys,” Sam says of the inmates, “are still human beings and taking the time to invest some more while they have them in their care might in the long run benefit everyone in society.” 

The rough times and the moments of humanity — those memories bring tears. 

There was the corrections officer who always greeted Sam with “Good morning, Lloret,” and asked if he was OK. When Sam had to quarantine because of COVID-19, that officer kept Sam’s job in the prison pantry open and waiting for him. 

Sam rubs the tears away with tattooed knuckles. They read "sola fide" — one word on each hand. Latin for “faith alone.” 

A few hours later, the dinner dishes are done and Sam’s eyes are pink with exhaustion. He walks up behind Marisa, wraps his arms around her and kisses the back of her head. 

They stand before a wall of square and rectangular canvases the kids painted.  

A green one reads, “Welcome home dad!!!”   

Loneliness and uncertainty 

An orange-tinged cup of microwavable Kraft macaroni and cheese sits on a desk in a corner of the hotel room, remnants of a recent meal. Most of the lights in this 391-square-foot studio are off, a morning news show pundit drones dully from the wall-mounted flat-screen, and the shade on the room’s only window is closed. It’s broken, so it wouldn't open anyway.  

James Magilton spent nine years incarcerated before his release from New Jersey State Prison in Trenton. But these are the loneliest days of his life.

James Magilton was one of thousands of prisoners in New Jersey released early during the COVID-19 pandemic. Magilton waits outside of Walmart after running some errands, for his paratransit ride back to the hotel his in Ewing where he is living with assistance from Catholic Charities.
James Magilton was one of thousands of prisoners in New Jersey released early during the COVID-19 pandemic. Magilton waits outside of Walmart after running some... James Magilton was one of thousands of prisoners in New Jersey released early during the COVID-19 pandemic. Magilton waits outside of Walmart after running some errands, for his paratransit ride back to the hotel his in Ewing where he is living with assistance from Catholic Charities.
AMY NEWMAN, NORTHJERSEY.COM/ USA TODAY NETWORK

“This isn’t how I envisioned coming home," he says. “I’m feeling more isolated than ever.”  

In 2013, James pleaded guilty and was sentenced for distribution of more than 100 prescription pills and having a weapon, which was illegal because of his prior criminal history. State records show he was sentenced to up to 10 years in prison, with about two years' credit for time served. 

James Magilton
“This isn’t how I envisioned coming home. I’m feeling more isolated than ever.”

On the day he gets out, he has a few hundred bucks saved up, two weeks’ worth of a long list of medications, no change of pants and four pairs of underwear. He has been given two NJ Transit tickets that would take him anywhere in New Jersey, provided he had somewhere to go.  

James, 57, sits on the floor, next to his manually powered wheelchair, as a Department of Corrections truck ferries him to Trenton Transit Center. When they drop him off, he guides his wheelchair to the sidewalk and waits for someone who can help. 

People who have been to prison are nearly 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, which seeks to end mass incarceration. Formerly incarcerated people face unemployment rates of 27%, according to one Prison Policy review, well above even the COVID-inflated national unemployment rate of 6.7%. 

After release from prison with nowhere to go, man finds temporary place to stay
After release from prison with nowhere to go, James Magilton stays at a hotel in Ewing paid for by a reentry group, but he’s not sure for how long.
Michael Karas, NorthJersey.com

State officials know of the challenges and have enacted laws meant to equip inmates with identification and help them get social services before they get out. The Department of Corrections has a six-month reentry program for people nearing their release dates, too.  

Yet nearly 90% of inmates released this winter in New Jersey did not have Motor Vehicle Commission identification cards. About 38% didn’t get any help applying for food stamps or general assistance, and 34% did not get help applying for health care benefits, according to the Corrections Department.  

And reentry workers say a minority of people who applied actually received benefits. Of about 800 people now receiving services through the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, only 20% had federal or state benefits when they were released, according to former Gov. Jim McGreevey, who runs the nonprofit. 

James Magilton was one of thousands of prisoners in New Jersey released early during the COVID-19 pandemic. He was dropped off at the train station without any identification, housing, food stamps or Medicaid enrollment. Magilton is wheel-chair bound, suffering from Parkinson's and chronic arthritis in his neck and spine. Magilton is currently staying in a hotel in Ewing with assistance from Catholic Charities. He has been able to get his prescriptions filled for now, but worries his housing situation which is temporary.
James Magilton was one of thousands of prisoners in New Jersey released early during the COVID-19 pandemic. He was dropped off at the train station... James Magilton was one of thousands of prisoners in New Jersey released early during the COVID-19 pandemic. He was dropped off at the train station without any identification, housing, food stamps or Medicaid enrollment. Magilton is wheel-chair bound, suffering from Parkinson's and chronic arthritis in his neck and spine. Magilton is currently staying in a hotel in Ewing with assistance from Catholic Charities. He has been able to get his prescriptions filled for now, but worries his housing situation which is temporary.
AMY NEWMAN, NORTHJERSEY.COM/ USA TODAY NETWORK

Department of Corrections and Murphy administration officials have said they worked to get inmates as many resources as possible, but that the law crunched their time frame for doing so.  

James is released with no identification, no health care, no Social Security, no food stamps to buy meals, nowhere to go. 

But help arrives in the form of strangers — the army of religious groups and nonprofits that work in reentry and pledge to help people adjust to life outside of prison. They aim to be the social support for those who don’t have any.  

No fewer than eight organizations and 10 people have stepped in to help James. But even with a cadre of cheerleaders, life has remained uncertain. 

James spent his first nights in a Bordentown hotel, worried about what would come next. The uncertainty brought him to tears each night, triggering anxiety and anger. 

“It’s such a frustrating situation,” he says now. “I want to punch walls. I was just overwhelmed with not knowing where I was going to be, not knowing what I was going to do.” 

Reentry groups moved him to this hotel in an office park near the Trenton airport, in an extended-stay studio with a king bed and a kitchenette, while they try to find permanent housing.

The hotel room is a blessing, but it is also a $20 Uber ride away from a store — a problem for a man with little money and no steady income, and who uses a wheelchair. James doesn’t qualify for cash assistance programs, which could provide a sense of security, because New Jersey law deems ineligible anyone with a drug distribution conviction.

James Magilton was one of thousands of prisoners released early during the COVID-19 pandemic. Magilton uses the hotel gym as a means of physical therapy for his Parkinson's. Lifting the weights helps decrease his body tremors and increase his upper body strength needed to help maneuver his wheelchair. Magilton is currently staying in a hotel in Ewing with assistance from Catholic Charities.
James Magilton was one of thousands of prisoners released early during the COVID-19 pandemic. Magilton uses the hotel gym as a means of physical therapy... James Magilton was one of thousands of prisoners released early during the COVID-19 pandemic. Magilton uses the hotel gym as a means of physical therapy for his Parkinson's. Lifting the weights helps decrease his body tremors and increase his upper body strength needed to help maneuver his wheelchair. Magilton is currently staying in a hotel in Ewing with assistance from Catholic Charities.
AMY NEWMAN, NORTHJERSEY.COM/ USA TODAY NETWORK

Each morning, James’ breakfast is a cup of coffee and 15 pills — tipped from enough orange pill bottles to crowd the bedside table — pills to quell his Parkinson’s disease, pills to calm his anger and anxiety, pills to relieve the pain of arthritis.  

Without those medications, his entire body locks with the fire of a charley horse, he says. So many different pills sometimes lead to dosing errors, mistakes, complications. There's at least one whole weekend since his release that he can’t remember.  

It only adds to the uncertainty of what tomorrow might bring. 

James worries about where he will go at the end of January, when his hotel reservation runs out. In the small studio with the broken shade, he guides his wheelchair back and forth by the bed. He’s wearing donated clothes and speaks in a stream of consciousness, his deep voice gravelly and from the throat. 

After serving nine years and four months in New Jersey prisons for a weapons offense and drug charges James Magilton was one of thousands of prisoners released early during the COVID-19 pandemic. He was dropped at the train station without any identification, housing, food stamps or Medicaid enrollment. Magilton is wheel-chair bound, suffering from Parkinson's and chronic arthritis in his neck and spine. Magilton is currently staying in a hotel in Ewing with assistance from Catholic Charities.
After serving nine years and four months in New Jersey prisons for a weapons offense and drug charges James Magilton was one of thousands of... After serving nine years and four months in New Jersey prisons for a weapons offense and drug charges James Magilton was one of thousands of prisoners released early during the COVID-19 pandemic. He was dropped at the train station without any identification, housing, food stamps or Medicaid enrollment. Magilton is wheel-chair bound, suffering from Parkinson's and chronic arthritis in his neck and spine. Magilton is currently staying in a hotel in Ewing with assistance from Catholic Charities.
AMY NEWMAN, NORTHJERSEY.COM/ USA TODAY NETWORK

“You know what I mean, we want this fixed,” he says. “The government is failing us so bad." 

The reentry advocates tell him he should go to an assisted living facility. Trained workers there can help him keep medications straight, and meals and basic needs are covered.  

“Maybe,” James muses aloud, “I need more help than I thought.”   

But a moment later, he changes his mind. Assisted living. Prison. He’s not interested in a life locked down by rigid rules and schedules.  

“I'm not going back to jail for nothing again,” he says. 

Frustration, and hope

Ahmed walks into his mother’s house on the afternoon of his release, lugging Walmart bags that bulge with groceries and clothes.

Ahmed has not been here before — his family moved into this mid-2000s subdivision of two-story homes on quarter-acre lots while he was incarcerated. A wall calendar in the kitchen indicates today's events in brown marker: “Welcome home.”  

Deborah bustles around the kitchen; she asks her boys and godson when she needs something off the high shelves. She tosses handmade crab cakes into a sizzling cast iron as she drinks a cup of broth heated in the Keurig — she hasn’t had time to eat today.  

Ahmed Ismail 30, center, enjoys his first homecooked meal in nearly five years, a seafood feast made by his mother, Deb Johnson. Ismail eats with his his brothers Kyle 26, Kaleb 19 and Kyle's girlfriend, Pearl Martin. Ismail was released from South Woods State Prison earlier in the day after serving five years on weapons possession charges.
Ahmed Ismail 30, center, enjoys his first homecooked meal in nearly five years, a seafood feast made by his mother, Deb Johnson. Ismail eats with... Ahmed Ismail 30, center, enjoys his first homecooked meal in nearly five years, a seafood feast made by his mother, Deb Johnson. Ismail eats with his his brothers Kyle 26, Kaleb 19 and Kyle's girlfriend, Pearl Martin. Ismail was released from South Woods State Prison earlier in the day after serving five years on weapons possession charges.
AMY NEWMAN, NORTHJERSEY.COM/ USA TODAY NETWORK

KJ, Ahmed’s brother who is two years younger, explodes through the front door. He doubles over with an excited scream when he sees Ahmed at the table.

“I miss you, man,” KJ bellows, locking Ahmed in a hug in the kitchen doorway. “Feels good, bro.” 

“Don’t make me do this in front of people,” Ahmed responds, wiping an eye. 

Tonight, the dinner plates are piled high with the foods Ahmed requested and served at his mother’s kitchen table: sautéed shrimp, tuna salad, fried flounder and crab cakes. The house quakes with the joyful noise of reunion.  

But this brief respite will be followed by days of work, and frustration. Ahmed has no identification, no health care, no Social Security card — despite putting in applications while in prison, even despite many frustrated calls by him and his mother to set up services. 

The online application for a Social Security card locked him out after he mistyped his address, so he must wait for paperwork in the mail.

A job Ahmed thought he had lined up fell apart after his friend, who knew of the opening, tested positive for COVID.  

“It’s tough,” Ahmed admits. “I'm aggravated. I'm trying not to get to the point where I shut down. I'm doing all right with that because my mom, everybody supporting me, I'm making some progress.” 

Ahmed Ismail
“It’s tough. I'm aggravated. I'm trying not to get to the point where I shut down.

Ahmed knows he’s lucky to have the reinforcement of his family. To have had someone waiting on the outside. To know the heavy jolt of a brother’s hug after years without hugs, the sizzle of a home-cooked meal, the balm of a house brimming with goodwill.  

He knows that not everyone released from prisons battling the pandemic, into a wider world fighting it, too, has that built-in support. 

And he knows something else. 

As uncertain as the future may be, if his family is behind him, he has hope. 

Stacey Barchenger is a reporter in the New Jersey Statehouse. For unlimited access to her work covering New Jersey’s policymakers and political power structure, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: sbarchenger@gannettnj.com; Phone: 732-427-0114; Twitter: @sbarchenger 

Published Updated