A growing coronavirus outbreak in a South Jersey jail has led local leaders to request state intervention, saying they have no confidence jail officials can manage the spread.
At least 60 inmates are infected at the Cumberland County Jail, almost 20% of the facility’s population of fewer than 300 inmates, according to an attorney representing the correctional officers’ union. At least 19 corrections officers and other staff are also infected.
State Sen. Michael Testa and Assemblymen Antwan McClellan and Erik K. Simonsen, who represent the area, pushed Friday for state inspectors to ensure proper mitigation procedures like testing and quarantining.
“Administrators at the Cumberland jail are overmatched and incapable of controlling the spread,” Testa said in a statement. “If they can’t get this contained quickly, we’re going to see an outbreak in the surrounding communities and that is something we all want to prevent.”
A county spokesperson and the warden, Richard Smith, did not immediately return requests for comment.
The current rate of infection in the Cumberland jail is much higher than in nearby correctional facilities. The Camden County jail, which houses more than 800 inmates, had 39 active cases this week, a spokesperson said.
New Jersey’s state-run prisons were among the hardest hit by outbreaks of COVID-19 this year, with one study in May finding they had the nation’s highest per-capita death rate among inmates. At least 51 such deaths have been reported this year. This month, more than 2,000 inmates were released early to help slow the spread.
Earlier this week, Cumberland County Commissioner Jack Surrency asked the state Department of Corrections to inspect the jail’s conditions, according to the Press of Atlantic City.
The outbreak comes amid a heated battle between jail employees and county officials, who this year announced plans to close the facility permanently and move inmates to other jails, including those in Burlington and Atlantic Counties.
The union representing correctional officers has sued to halt the plans, which would result in more than 100 layoffs. The case is not expected to be heard in court until next year.
In the meantime, some Cumberland County inmates have already been transferred in recent months, said Stuart Alterman, the attorney representing the correctional officers’ union. Alterman said he did not believe those inmates were tested first.
The union has also sued the county and the jail administration several times this year over coronavirus-related workplace concerns.
Alterman said the county failed to provide proper masks and other personal protective equipment to staff members. Though Gov. Phil Murphy recommended that jails and prisons start broadly testing inmates in August, Alterman said such testing did not begin until the fall, and has not been consistent. He also said the jail is not strictly quarantining inmates after possible exposures.
Several corrections officers were hospitalized with the virus this year, Alterman said, and some of their family members were also infected.
“It’s not March of 2020,” he said. “There was plenty of time to properly and professionally prepare for this second wave. You don’t sit in a burning house without at least filling a glass of water to throw at the flames.”