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More than a year after his release from prison, James Magilton is still without permanent housing. He is one of thousands of former inmates trying to adapt to pandemic life in New Jersey. NorthJersey.com

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This is not where James Magilton wanted to be 14 months after he was released from a New Jersey prison. 

“I was hoping for a fairy-tale ending to the story,” he said last month.

Magilton’s story, at least this public chapter of it, began on Nov. 4, 2020.

Magilton, now 58, was one of thousands of inmates released on that single day as New Jersey took an unprecedented step to reduce the number of people incarcerated after first waves of COVID-19 wrought their deadly impact on Garden State prisons.

Magilton was ferried to the Trenton Transit Center and left, in his wheelchair, with two transit tickets and nowhere to go.

An army of reentry workers stepped in to help, and several news organizations — including NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY Network New Jersey — told Magilton’s story in the days after his release

His life has remained marked by uncertainty, and though reentry workers say his struggle is not typical, it highlights one of the many challenges people leaving incarceration can face: finding a stable place to live.

More: 'Nothing rapid about it:' NJ renters struggle to find housing even with COVID relief

Prison reform advocates say stable housing is foundational to success, but they warn that formerly incarcerated people are almost 10 times more likely than the public to experience homelessness, according to one review by the Prison Policy Initiative, an advocacy group that seeks to end mass incarceration.  

Magilton has moved roughly every 2½ months since his release. He described it as chaos. And what’s more, he has seen a glimpse of what stability could mean. 

“I’m on my way up,” he said during a March interview at a home in Long Branch — a place where he intended to stay. 

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5,400 people released

Magilton is one of thousands of people who shaved months off their sentences under a bill Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law in October 2020.  

Months before, COVID had spread through prisons and among Department of Corrections staffers, and New Jersey ranked highest in the nation for the COVID-related death rate within prison systems. 

The law offered one solution: letting inmates within a year of release get out up to eight months early for serving time during the pandemic. Certain inmates, including those convicted of murder and other serious crimes, were not eligible.

All told, more than 5,400 people earned credits off their sentences under the provisions of the law and were released, said Alexander Shalom, senior supervising attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, which advocated for the bill.  

“The people for whom it was a success, it’s been a startling success to get out early and resume your life," Shalom said. “I've talked to people for whom it’s meant reconnecting with family and healing those relationships that were damaged by incarceration.”  

An annual report from the Office of the Corrections Ombudsperson said the legislation was useful in reducing COVID’s spread in prisons, but could have gone further.  

The report said the law should not have limited eligibility to those who were within a year of getting out, in part because some incarcerated people — those who had COVID symptoms or who had to quarantine — were excluded from benefiting from the law if they had longer sentences left to serve.

When Murphy ended the public health emergency in June, the governor also ended eligibility for more inmates to earn time off their sentences due to the pandemic. Still, New Jersey reduced its prison population by more than 40%, more than any other state, according to an analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative. 

“Overall, New Jersey deserves credit for dramatically reducing its prison and jail populations in the time of COVID to protect public health,” Shalom said, even as he cautioned that the credits were a temporary measure and prison populations would increase without lasting reforms to sentencing laws. 

A permanent place to live

Magilton was sentenced to prison in 2013, after pleading guilty to distribution of prescription pills and having a weapon, which was illegal because of his criminal history. Before being released in 2020, he’d served over a year of his term in the 185-year-old New Jersey State Prison after he assaulted another inmate, he said. 

He went from maximum security to free man in a single day. 

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

Magilton’s first months were spent in hotels near Trenton as he worked to understand a new cellphone, and use it to get identification, food stamps and Social Security benefits. He was constantly lonely and constantly on the verge of eviction, he said, though he did turn down one housing program he feared would be too regimented and too much like prison. 

Ultimately, five months after his release, Magilton moved into a room in a house in Long Branch that he found with the help of the Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale, of the Reformed Church of Highland Park. Four other men would move in over the next weeks.

Kaper-Dale said the home offered permanent housing through the church's Affordable Housing Corporation, which helps refugees, people with bad credit history and others in need of affordable rent.

The creaky old house in Long Branch was drafty, but started to become home.  

The living situation helped curb the loneliness, sometimes. The men had family-style dinners of hamburgers and chili — and Magilton made his favorite, french fries. The roommates picked up the prescriptions that kept his Parkinson’s disease and other ailments at bay, and one did Magilton’s laundry down in the basement for him. 

On a frigid March afternoon, Magilton received a call from Social Security, confirming he would get three months’ worth of back-due benefits deposited into his bank account. There had been a problem because Magilton's address had changed, again, the woman on the phone said.

Magilton first applied in November, just days after he was released. The benefits — an essential lifeline that would help him pay for medications — would also cover his $200-a-month rent and utilities costs, he said. 

“I pay my own rent, I don’t have to worry about getting evicted the first of the month,” Magilton said. “I’m ecstatic to be here.” 

'One hell of a fight all the way through'

But just a month after Magilton moved in, firefighters blocked off the street outside his new home one Sunday evening. 

An investigation determined that a fire that licked up the rear of the home was not set intentionally and may have been caused by something discarded in the garbage behind the house, according to Long Branch Public Safety Director Domingos Saldida.  

Still, all the residents were displaced. Magilton, again, had no place to go. 

“I have no control of my life again,” he said at the time.  

He ended up in a Long Branch hotel, paid for by Kaper-Dale, then one in Asbury Park.

NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY Network New Jersey lost contact with him for several months after he moved to Asbury Park; it was a rough period during which Magilton later said he purposefully became homeless because he thought doing so would make it easier to get assistance. 

Magilton is now receiving emergency assistance that will help pay for his housing for up to a year, he said. About three months ago he settled into a motel on Route 9 in Englishtown.

It’s at least the sixth place he’s lived in about 14 months. 

And just as he was over a year ago, Magilton is unsure where he will go after this hotel.

He feels he’s at a dead end. He wants to cry sometimes, and while talking about the uncertainty, his deep, gravelly voice is subdued with frustration.  

“I'm not complaining; please don't take it like that,” Magilton said. "I just — I anticipated a different outcome. I don't live in a state of depression because of it. I gave it one hell of a fight all the way through.”

Reporter Stacey Barchenger can be reached at sbarchenge@gannett.com or 480-416-5669.

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