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Man Sentenced to One Year For Shoplifting Dies In Prison During Pandemic

A New Jersey man who was sentenced to one year in prison died on May 10, 2020, while in custody at the Central Reception and Assignment Facility in Trenton, where prisoners go before they are sent to a regular prison. 

According to court records, Ricardo Williamson was given a one-year sentence on a single charge of fourth-degree shoplifting for stealing watches and perfume totaling about $200 from the Macy’s at the Willowbrook Mall in Wayne, New Jersey. Williamson said he committed the crime to support his drug addiction.

Williamson agreed to a plea deal stipulating to a one-year sentence, but James Sheehan, his court-appointed attorney, asked the court to consider time served (he had already spent four months at the Passaic County Jail) because Williamson, 62, suffered from multiple chronic illnesses that required intensive medical care.

The prosecutor, Melissa Simsen, countered, arguing that there were “services (in prison) where the defendant can get medical treatment, so I don’t think it will be a hardship.”

‘‘You continue to engage in criminal activity with this condition, so to say, ‘Well judge, I shouldn’t have to go to jail because my medical health is fragile and I could get very sick if I’m in jail and exposed to other folks who have illnesses,’ that’s not fair,” said Judge Justine A. Niccollai. “That’s not something that this court could, quite frankly, consider, because there is a punitive aspect (to the sentence).”

Williamson was transferred to the Central Reception and Assignment Facility as the coronavirus pandemic was escalating. He never left. The facility had logged just one death linked to the virus as of May 15, but it is unclear whether this number is accurate since testing is underutilized in prison settings. It is not certain that he died of the virus because the prison won’t comment on his medical history, citing medical privacy rules.

A investigation found New Jersey’s prison system was ill-prepared to deal with the pandemic, and it took weeks to implement even the most basic protective measures like masks and hand sanitizer for prisoners. Williamson is one of more than 40 prisoners who have died in state prisons since the crisis began. Williamson’s niece, Nina Kemp, said the family wasn’t notified of his death by the prison authorities. They learned of it when they were contacted by a reporter. Kemp said her “Uncle Ricky” was a “wonderful man” who loved to sing for her and her children.

“We made, as a state, a strategic decision that it made more sense to incarcerate him at $50,000 a year rather than figure out why it was that he was shoplifting,” said Rev. Charles Boyer, the head of Salvation and Social Justice. “He got a death sentence for shoplifting.” 



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