Amid COVID-19 outbreak, on April 10, 2020, the New Jersey Governor Bill Murphy publicly announced his Executive Order #24 (EO24), pertaining to Emergency Home Confinement (EMHC), that would temporarily release some prisoners to stem the spread of Corona Virus within New Jersey Prisons.
However, this so-called ‘temporary release order’ became yet another waste of precious paper and law as the New Jersey politicians, once again, managed to write a Prison Reform law for people who do not exist, at least not in the main state prisons.
Among many other prisoners in New Jersey State Prison (NJSP), who were denied this so-called relief was a 69 year old prisoner, named Vernon Collins.
I first met Vernon Collins, aka Noor-ud-Deen, some 15 years ago in the small yard adjacent to the “6-Wing” housing unit of the NJSP. The 6-Wing is further divided into two sides, one being 6-Right, and the other 6-Left, both units house approximately 120 prisoners each. It is the same unit that is mimicked in the Hollywood movie, staring Denzel Washington, about the life of Ruben “Hurricane” Carter.
In 2005, we were both new in the building and had just came out of the mandatory “quarantine” period on 6-Left. I first saw him standing next to the free weights in the small 6-Wing yard that is encapsulated by the red brick walls of the newer part of the NJSP’s North and South Compounds and a guard tower. He had a peculiar way about him, a very welcoming and disarming demeanor that is rather unusual behind these walls. The genuine sincerity in his eyes and a glow on his face provided validity to his given name Noor-ud-Deen that literally means Light of the Faith in Arabic.
Our conversation started with a simple Islamic greeting, “Assalaammualaikum.” Almost two decades have since passed, over the years our relationship went through the regular rigors of time, with all the requisite hardships of prison life and agreements and disagreements, I can say for sure that he is one of the best human beings I have met in my life.
We both are intricately involved in the Islamic Community in NJSP. He is one of our elder statesman, and a pillar of our Muslim society in here. I call him “Shaykh”, a term of respect and honor, due to his age and wisdom.
The thing that made Noor-ud-Deen’s case worse was the fact that not only was he denied relief, but the callous manner it was done. You see, EO24 was crafted to allegedly protect the elderly and vulnerable, and Noor-ud-Deen, a 69 year old man, who already served 33 years behind bars qualified for that relief. Yet, he was denied due to the following reasons among other:
1. History of Escape – A play on words of course, as the incident led out of Noor-ud-Deen leaving a ‘half-way’ house some 40 YEARS ago.
2. Facts/Circumstances of Offense(s): 86.08.0769. – That happens to be the number of his Indictment; a matter of transporting drugs, a NON-VIOLENT offense.
3. Lack of adequate furlough plan – A technical term for the public. In reality it meant that a man who has been behind bars for 33 years wasn’t able to provide a ‘home address’ that would satisfy the State’s liking.
4. Other agency objection, specify: Mercer County Prosecutor – Basically, the prosecutor objected to Noor-ud-Deen’s release. [Quite a shocker!!]
Adding insult to injury, Noor-ud-Deen actually caught the Corona Virus while he waited for the State’s final decision on his EMHC release. He finally learnt of the denial being housed in an isolated cell on 7-Wing lockup unit created especially for all COVID-19 positive prisoner.
Listening to Noor-ud-Deen’s plight, who wasn’t looking for sympathy, I requested him to allow me to interview him. In that way perhaps I might be able to highlight his, and similar others’, saga. Or, maybe I just wanted to quell my own anger and helplessness. In as much, that the State of New Jersey has had the worst infection and death ratio of prisoners within its care in the entire nation. [* PLEASE ADD CURRENT COVID-19 #’s from NJDOC WEBSITE].
I remain hopeful, however, that someone outside might come across this article and will choose to do something about this travesty.
Following is a conversation with my friend, my brother in faith, and my Shaykh, Noor-ud-Deen:
WHO ARE YOU, WHAT IS YOUR NAME AND AGE, AND WHERE ARE YOU FROM?
I am Vernon A. Collins, 69, from Baltimore, MD. I am a Black man, Muslim. I have been incarcerated for 33 years. No institutional infraction.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN IN NEW JERSEY STATE PRISON?
I have been in prison for 33years, 15 years in NJSP.
WHAT CRIMES WERE YOU CONVICTED OF, AND HOW LONG OF A SENTENCE DO YOU HAVE? AND WHAT ABOUT YOUR APPEAL PROCESS?
I was convicted of Possession with intent to Distribute Narcotics – Heroin. I am in court at the Appellate level on a Motion to Correct an Illegal Sentence.
HOW DID YOU COME TO KNOW ABOUT THE COFVIDE-19 FURLOUGH PROGRAM, AND HOW DID YOU FEEL UPON LEARNING ABOUT IT?
I was told about the COVID-19 program by another inmate. I was surprised when I had a counselor come to my door and ask me questions such as, my name, number, age, medical conditions, and etc. Also, where would I stay if I was released on the Emergency Medical Home Confinement. I answered all of those questions. However, when I gave a Baltimore address for the above program, the counselor asked if I had a New Jersey address. I answered, “not at the moment.” She then rushed away and in a few days another counselor came to my door and gave me some papers to sign which I found out later were Release Papers. Later on, I heard from an attorney, Matthew Mandas, who said he was appointed to follow my case and ensure my rights were safeguarded. I actually never got to meet him.
WHAT WAS THE RESULT; KINDLY PROVIDE A SUMMARIZED ACCOUNT IN YOUR OWN WORDS?
WHAT WERE YOUR PLANS HAD YOU BEEN RELEASED?
To go home and stay home until such time as this virus is no longer dangerous. In accordance to the rules you could not do anything but stay in your home.
DID YOU GET HOPEFUL ABOUT THE PROSPECT OF GOING HOME?
When I had them people contact me out of the blue I felt cautiously optimistic. I however had been locked up 33 years and know how easily a thing can be denied. Nevertheless, I informed my family and some friends and they all were hopeful that I would be able to get out since the danger of virus spread in the prison, where people were housed close together, was great.
HOW DID YOU FEEL.WHEN YOU GOT DENIED?
I felt a little disappointed when I was denied especially because of the reasons given. I have been incarcerated for 33 years with no institutional infraction. I have been involved in positive endeavors and thought this could count for something. However, it appeared to not matter at all. And at the end, I tested positive for the virus anyway.
HOW ABOUT YOUR FAMILY, HOW DID THEY TAKE IT?
The denial of EMHC was a great letdown for my family who had great anticipation for my release, that hurt me the most. I had reminded them not to get their hopes up. However, they did and were letdown and hopefully something better will come along that will benefit people like me.
SHARE SOME LESSONS, OR SOME THOUGHTS, THAT YOU THINK WOULD BENEFIT THE YOUTH OR THE PEOPLE AND SOCIETY OUTSIDE?
I am of the opinion that I have shown over many years to have changed my life and know I would be of benefit to my family, the youth in the society as well as the general populous. But, that can’t happen if one is denied an opportunity for such. I think we have a world of potential in many of these prisoners.that are just going to waste away. They could prove very beneficial if released into society and given the tools necessary to effect change for the entire society and many even the entire world.
PROVIDE A BRIEF HISTORY OF YOUR INVOLVEMENT AND EFFORTS IN SUPPORT OF THE ISLAMIC COMMUNITY IN PRISON; AND YOUR PERSPECTIVE ABOUT ITS FUTURE?
I have been in the Islamic Community since my arrival in 2005. My efforts have always been to participate in its functions and help in any way I can . I have been mentoring young Muslims in particular, teaching them about the religion and life. We are always hopeful about the future of the community.
WHAT IS YOUR MESSAGE FOR PEOPLE OUTSIDE?
There needs to be more support for incarcerated people. Many here are elderly and “Model Prisoners” and would be of great benefit to the greater society through their wisdom and lessons learned along the way, especially for the youth.
–By Tariq MaQbool