Camden County officials are conducting a whirlwind of meetings with local mayors and state legislators this week after announcing their intention to seek a company to take over the downtown Camden jail and build a new facility.

"We decided the time was right to say what we're going to do. There's nothing left to analyze," county spokeswoman Joyce Gabriel said yesterday.

The campaign to drum up support among South Jersey's elected officials follows months of speculation about the future of the jail. County officials have been critical of the 22-year-old facility lately, citing its "design flaws" and $55.2 million annual cost, prompting critics to question whether the decision to privatize had been made months ago.

The freeholders have taken no official vote to privatize; Gabriel said that would wait until the new year. But she said support among the seven members was unanimous.

The decision follows a recent analysis of the jail by criminal justice consultants Pulitzer/Bogard & Associates that recommended privatization. The report cited the existing overcrowding at the jail, which county officials put at almost 60 percent over capacity.

Were the county to go ahead, it would operate the first private jail in New Jersey. Officials would likely face some legal challenges along the way, beginning with whether a private company can legally operate a jail in New Jersey.

While private companies are essentially prohibited from running state prisons, the rules are not clear on county facilities, said Matt Schuman, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Corrections.

"The state's ability is very limited by the laws, but it really doesn't say anything about the county," he said. "We do annual inspections. And if a county jail is really being mismanaged, DOC can take over. But beyond that, each county jail operates independently of the state."

Gabriel said county attorneys felt they were on solid legal ground. But Peter Farlow, a member of the Camden County Policemen's Benevolent Association who works at the jail, said the union would likely challenge that interpretation.

"The Department of Corrections oversees all corrections, so I hope it would apply to the county jails," he said. "The state PBA sees this as a statewide fight. Everyone's watching Camden County to see what happens."

The 350 corrections officers who work at the jail face potential pay cuts and the loss of their existing pension plan if the privatization deal goes through, both union and county officials said.

A request for bids is expected to go out in the summer, and if all goes on schedule, a private contractor would likely take over the existing jail before the end of 2010 and begin building a new facility shortly thereafter, Gabriel said.

At that point, the county would begin paying a per diem rate, which at comparable facilities runs between $65 and $85 per inmate, Gabriel said.

"We're estimating $5 to $10 million in annual cost savings," she said. "But that's not a definite; there's a lot of variables."

One company, Education & Health Centers of America Inc., already has applied to the City of Camden to build a correctional facility on Mount Ephraim Avenue. It runs private prisons in Delaware County and in other states.

Existing officers would be offered the first opportunity to apply for jobs, but in working for a private company, they would lose their status as law-enforcement officers, which carries protection on pension and benefits, Farlow said.

So far, many local officials remain neutral on the proposal, waiting for more details.

"I really don't know a whole lot about it," said Haddon Township Mayor Randy Teague.

Bellmawr Police Chief Bill Walsh, who heard county officials speak on the issue at a presentation to the Camden County Police Chiefs Association last week, said his group was undecided.

"It sounded like they have a definite plan," he said. "But we have a lot of questions to ask. We just heard about it, so we're going to get together as a community. We'll probably talk to people in Delaware County."

As county officials make their rounds, union leaders are meeting with lobbyists to see whether they can persuade a state legislator to take up their cause.

"We're going to fight this," Farlow said. "The county is making a big mistake."