Camden County is awaiting a $100,000 consultant's report on its corrections system that could lead officials to try something unprecedented in New Jersey: Privatizing the county jail.
Privatization of a core government function is a controversial prospect, and county officials will only say they are exploring all avenues to remedy severe overcrowding at the facility in downtown Camden. But there are indications a private jail is being seriously considered.
In commissioning the consultant's report, officials specifically asked for an analysis of privatization options. And top Camden County officials have toured Pennsylvania's only privately run county jail, in Delaware County, and smaller drug-treatment-focused, privately run facilities in Philadelphia and in Essex County, N.J.
In its winning bid proposal for the consultant contract, the New York firm Pulitzer/Bogard & Associates even cited its knowledge of staffing private jails "with and without collective bargaining agreements."
The fate of those labor agreements is the heart of what could become a prolonged debate between the county, which hopes to control jail costs, and the union, representing about 350 corrections officers who fear being replaced by minimum-wage security guards.
The Pulitzer/Bogard & Associates report could be ready as early as this summer, and already the union is gearing up for a fight against the potential privatization recommendations.
The attorney for the Camden County corrections officers, Stuart Alterman, says private facilities are prone to increased violence, which increases liability costs.
In 2005, for example, seven inmates died at Delaware County's jail under the watch of its former operator, Geo Group. The company paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in wrongful death settlements, and ended up terminating its contract with the county last New Year's Eve, citing the cost of litigation.
There have also been problems with medical care. Last year, a Howard Stern sidekick, Keith Kallenback, died in the jail after he wasn't given the proper treatment for his cystic fibrosis, family members have alleged.
"For the government to abdicate their responsibility to some company will be an absolute debacle," Alterman said. "The next thing the government is going to do is say, 'We're putting bids out for police departments.' "
Opponents say private guards are untrained and underpaid, and that private jails have a financial motive to, for example, delay medical treatment for sick inmates nearing release.
Angus Love, a prisoners' advocate with the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, also said privatization leaves politicians susceptible to so-called pay-to-play - companies that make campaign contributions to score contracts.
"For-profit is an incorrect way to go on core government services," Love said. "It compromises the function of the entity by introducing the profit motive."
But governments have financial motives, too. Camden County Administrator Ross Angilella tries to avoid tax increases each year, but the county jail is an ongoing drain on resources, accounting for 20 percent of the county budget.
Long-term infrastructure improvements on the dilapidated building are difficult, he said, because temporary space is needed to hold prisoners while work is done, and the Camden County Jail is far too overcrowded to allow that.
As of yesterday, there were 1,790 inmates at the facility, which was built for 1,267. Inmates sometimes sleep on the floor.
These conditions have made the county a target of lawsuits, including a federal class-action suit, even though the county freeholders have little control over the number of inmates the jail receives.
That might make privatization attractive to the county. In Delaware County, the new company, Community Education Centers Inc. (CEC), assumed all liability.
A private company could also be commissioned to build a new facility, which is how Delaware County got the new George W. Hill Correctional Facility in 1998.
Not all private entities are the same. Some have unionized workers, as in Delaware County. And some low-level offenders who are addicted to drugs or alcohol are housed in smaller facilities where they get intensive drug treatment.
The City of Philadelphia contracts with CEC for such a facility. On a tour yesterday of the North Philadelphia building, called Hoffman Hall, company officials painted a positive picture of a "community" where the word residents replaces inmates.
Corridors at Hoffman Hall, where nearly everyone has a drug or alcohol addiction, are lined with posters featuring adages from 12-step treatment programs, and counselors run small group sessions teaching life skills to residents.
"That's the key: When folks are released, do you have an opportunity to integrate back into the community?" asked Robert Pollock, director of Hoffman Hall. "Most guys have never had a checking account. They don't know how to interview. They don't know how to be a father and a husband."
Showing off a room for eight with a private bathroom, resident Kevin Block, 47, said: "They consider us residents, because this is our home."
Company officials have given similar tours to Camden County officials, and the company has scouted out possible locations for private jailing facilities in the county.
CEC says it abides by the highest standards in medical care and security. An incident last week at the company-owned Delaney Hall in Essex County, in which three men allegedly killed a fellow inmate, is "the only incident of its kind" since it opened in 2000, said William Palatucci, senior vice president of CEC.
Public officials concurred. Joseph DiVincenzo, Essex County administrator, said 700 drug-addicted inmates are housed at Delaney Hall, easing the strain on the public jail and reducing the recidivism rate.
"They've done an outstanding job for us," he said. "I have nothing but good things to say about them."
Delaware County, where county officials are stationed on-site, might be more analogous to Camden County because both facilities have about 1,800 inmates.
Yet it costs Delaware County $40 million annually for its jail, compared with $60 million annually in Camden County.
"The Delaware County experience has clearly been that privatization does not expose our taxpayers to the burgeoning cost of litigation and to the onerous impact of settlements," said John Reilly, superintendent of the jail and a county employee.
So far, CEC is doing a good job, he said, and the company has an incentive to continue to do a good job - it wants a renewed contract at the end of the year.
"If it's efficient and reduces costs, and therefore saves taxpayer dollars, then, fine," Reilly said. "The question then becomes: 'Why can't government do that?' "