Cumberland County officials this week sought to assuage concerns that coronavirus infections are spreading unchecked at the local jail, saying the outbreak is under control and officials are following all necessary health guidelines.
“We are not overwhelmed nor are we incapable of controlling the spread of the virus,” Warden Richard Smith said in a statement. “We are following all state and CDC protocols and are managing our positive COVID cases among staff and detainees in accordance with those protocols.”
Smith said that 50 inmates and 11 corrections officers were positive for the virus as of last week and that all have been quarantined appropriately. The jail typically houses fewer than 300 inmates.
Smith also blamed corrections officers for bringing the virus into the jail, saying they were seen attending parties outside of work in which they did not wear face masks or practice social distancing.
“Given the unique closed environment jails present, COVID infections can rise suddenly when the virus is introduced from the outside,” he said.
After calls for help from local leaders, the New Jersey Department of Corrections is planning to inspect the jail, said several sources with knowledge of the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter. The state does not have day-to-day oversight of county jails, but does have the authority to conduct inspections to ensure facilities are following health and safety guidelines.
Last week, State Sen. Michael Testa and Assemblymen Antwan McClellan and Erik K. Simonsen asked the state to intervene. They joined a county commissioner as well as the attorney for the corrections officers’ union, who have also sounded alarms about conditions there.
Stuart Alterman, the union’s lawyer, has said at least 60 inmates have tested positive, along with 19 corrections officers and other staff. He has filed numerous lawsuits alleging that jail administrators have failed to provide adequate face masks and other personal protective equipment.
The outbreak comes as jail employees and county officials are battling over the county’s plans to close the facility permanently and move inmates to other jails, including those in Burlington and Atlantic Counties.
The union representing corrections 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.
Smith said “disgruntled” and “agenda-driven” employees are spreading misinformation about the outbreak. Until recently, he said, infections were low, and he denied that corrections officers have had problems securing PPE. He said the jail had implemented cleaning, distancing, and other mitigation measures.
“Controlling any contagious communicable disease in a correctional facility is always a challenge,” Smith said. “Cases can multiply quickly and then drop just as rapidly as mitigation procedures are implemented.”
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.
Liz Velez, a spokesperson for the state Department of Corrections, declined to comment specifically Wednesday on Cumberland County.