Emotional reunions follow the early release of N.J. inmates, in an effort to contain the virus.

Outside Northern State Prison in Newark, a line of cars stretched along the road early Wednesday. Their occupants were waiting for some of the 2,258 inmates who would be released early from prisons and halfway houses across New Jersey to reduce the risk of the coronavirus in crowded lockups, where social distancing is next to impossible.

It was one of the largest single-day reductions of any state’s prison population.

Only prisoners within a year of completing sentences for crimes other than murder and sexual assault are eligible to be released up to eight months early.

The freed prisoners were easy to spot: Each carried a white mesh laundry bag filled with manila envelopes that held their prison health records, state ID cards and leaflets about addiction treatment programs and re-entry services.

Over the coming months, 1,167 more prisoners will be freed. In all, the releases will result in a roughly 35 percent reduction in New Jersey’s prison population since the start of the pandemic.

The initiative grew out of legislation signed into law last month and comes at a moment of intense national debate over transforming a criminal justice system that imprisons people of color in disproportionate numbers.

But politics and criminal justice policy were far from the minds of most people waiting to spot their loved ones walking out of prison gates, or off buses and trains, and into their arms.

The men leaving Northern State Prison spoke of people they knew who had contracted the virus, and about the lockdown measures in place since March that kept them inside small rooms with a bunkmate for as many as 23 hours a day.

Allan Campbell, a 41-year-old Passaic County man who was imprisoned for a parole violation, said a man in his unit died of Covid-19, one of at least 52 virus-related inmate fatalities in New Jersey prisons. He said he had worried about getting the virus, and in June he was quarantined for seven days with a fever of 100.7.

“I’m so glad to get out — I just thank God,” said Mr. Campbell, dressed in a newly issued pair of jeans and a white shirt.

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