Inmates at a South Jersey jail are suing county officials over the jail’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, saying the facility didn’t provide adequate face masks, failed to implement regular disinfecting and testing, and did not quarantine those infected with the virus.
Local leaders, inmates, and correctional officers have been sounding alarms for months about conditions at the Cumberland County Jail in Bridgeton. County officials have denied accusations that the virus spread unchecked through the facility and said they are following proper health guidelines.
The federal lawsuit asks that an independent monitor be appointed to review health and safety conditions at the jail. A hearing is scheduled later this month in U.S. District Court in Camden, attorneys said.
Representatives for Cumberland County declined to comment on the suit, referring the matter to the county’s lawyers, who did not respond to requests for comment. County spokeswoman Jody Hirata said in a statement that there was just one new confirmed coronavirus case in the jail last week, and that the inmate was in quarantine and did not require hospitalization.
The suit follows a damning report by the Department of Justice, which last month said the jail violated inmates’ rights by denying them adequate mental health and drug treatment. The investigation was sparked by the suicides of several inmates in recent years.
The latest filing echoes months of allegations by inmates and correctional officers, who say the jail didn’t implement widespread testing for the coronavirus until last fall, months after the pandemic took hold. At one point last December, correctional officers said as many as 60 inmates were infected, about 20% of the facility’s population of fewer than 300.
“Our belief is that the jail has failed repeatedly to provide basic health services,” said Jeffrey Pollock, an attorney representing the inmates. “This has been ongoing, and we do not believe there’s been any substantial effort to mitigate this.”
Local officials have asked the state to step in and last year called for former Warden Richard Smith to resign. New Jersey doesn’t have day-to-day oversight of county jails, but is authorized to conduct inspections to ensure facilities are following health and safety guidelines.
Smith last year said the complaints were the work of disgruntled employees and accused correctional officers of bringing the virus into the jail after attending parties without wearing masks. Smith left his position last month to take a job as the county equal employment opportunity director.
Keeping the virus out of jails and prisons has stymied government leaders since the pandemic began almost a year ago. In Philadelphia’s jails, hundreds of inmates and staff have tested positive. New Jersey’s state-run prisons were among the hardest hit by COVID-19, with one study last spring finding they had the nation’s highest per-capita death rate among inmates.
The lawsuit is the latest piece in a larger political battle over the Cumberland County jail, which has been in limbo since the summer when local officials announced plans to close it and transfer inmates to facilities in neighboring communities. The union representing correctional officers has sued to halt the plan, which would result in more than 100 layoffs, and the matter is currently stalled in court.