My student died from coronavirus in prison. He didn’t deserve it.

OPINION: Chaya Crowder, who taught at the Prison Teaching Initiative at East Jersey State Prison, mourns the life of David Thomas Brown Sledge.

Mr. David Thomas Brown Sledge. (Cofield Mortuary/Adobe Stock)

David Thomas Brown Sledge, who was incarcerated at East Jersey State Prison, died of COVID-19 on April 24, 2020.

Mr. Brown was my student in the Introduction to Women and Gender Studies course who I co-taught last semester through the Prison Teaching Initiative at East Jersey State Prison along with my co-instructors Talia Sharpp and Meremu Chikwendu.

He is one of 8 people who have died from COVID-19 at East Jersey State Prison, which has had more deaths than any prison in the state of New Jersey.

READ MORE: Inmate details poor COVID-19 prison conditions in striking video

Data from The Marshall Project reveals that after Ohio and Michigan, New Jersey prisons have the highest coronavirus death rate in the nation. To date, in New Jersey 43 people have died in prison from COVID-19. As of May 20, in the United States 29,251 people in prison have tested positive for coronavirus and a total of 415 incarcerated people have died from coronavirus.  

As we consider the life or death implications of prison reform, it is important to remember that the numbers cited in these death toll statistics represent real, valuable human lives. Mr. Brown was a bright light in my classroom. He was well-respected and encouraging. Despite his old school nature, he was open to new ideas about gender and sexuality.

Mr. Brown was a dedicated student who made my job easier as a teacher. On the final day of class, he gave the team of professors a poem that he wrote to express his gratitude for the semester. Mr. Brown did not deserve to die pf COVID-19 in jail. No one does. 

READ MORE: Ohio inmate films inside prison after outbreak: ‘Leaving us to die’

I found out about his death after seeing a post on Facebook for the #SayTheirNames Funeral Procession that was hosted on May 28 from 11 a.m. – 1 p.m. by the New Jersey Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement. As I scrolled through the list of names of those who died in prison, I found the name of my former student, David Brown. The aforementioned event was a car-only funeral procession to honor the memory of each person who died in New Jersey prisons from COVID-19. 

Mr. Brown’s death underscores the urgency necessary for elected officials to take steps to protect this vulnerable population. It is impossible to social distance in prison. A report by the American Civil Liberties Union predicts that unless things change jails could contribute to doubling the death toll in the United States. 

One thing that states can do to address this crisis is to release eligible elderly and ill people who are incarcerated. Some states like Washington and California have already taken steps to free inmates. In New Jersey it is crucial that Governor Phil Murphy release people and improve conditions for those who remain incarcerated. 

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey donated $10 Million to Meek Mill and Jay Z’s Reform Alliance in an effort to get protective equipment to U.S. jails and prisons. The Reform Alliance has since partnered with National Sheriffs to deliver masks to every jail that needs them.

While broader criminal justice reform is necessary, in the short term, people are dying and there are some changes that cannot wait. David Brown did not deserve to die. It is crucial that we #SayTheirNames.

Chaya Crowder is a doctoral candidate at Princeton University.


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