Kevin Riordan: Camden County jail plans at odds with charter school
If any building could be said to "loom," it's the Camden County jail. This six-story, blockwide pile of beige bricks at Third and Federal Streets dominates the landscape of downtown Camden and the waterfront.
If any building could be said to "loom," it's the Camden County jail.
This six-story, blockwide pile of beige bricks at Third and Federal Streets dominates the landscape of downtown Camden and the waterfront.
Even without those ladies on the sidewalks body-texting their incarcerated loved ones, the jail is one famous joint. And not in a good way.
In 2009 it looked as though the jail might disappear like the state's now-vanished Riverfront Prison, a dozen blocks north. Releasing a flotilla of trial balloons into local newspapers, officials characterized the jail as not only hopelessly overcrowded, unsafe, and expensive, but also irredeemably obsolete.
The supposed promise of privatization and a new (conveniently out of sight) site on the city's eastern edge were enthusiastically promoted. But it seems someone forgot, alas, to memo Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley, who, along with residents of Camden's Fairview section and nearby towns, proved far less sanguine about the prospect of more than 1,000 new, colorfully jumpsuited neighbors.
The union representing 300-plus corrections officers was likewise unenthusiastic about the county's turning the jail over to, say, a politically wired private company. And let's not forget the continuing Great Recession, the rise of Gov. Christie, and the chances a Republican (or two) could be elected Camden County freeholder in November.
Given this fresh context, I'm not surprised the 23-year-old jail is now seen as far less hopeless than it was a mere year ago. Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. hopes the county can determine the jail's future within 18 months.
There's some breathing room: The existing jail now has a much lower inmate population, thanks to savvy managerial and technical improvements. And Police Benevolent Association Local 351 and the county are about to sign their first new labor agreement since 2005.
If the county does decide to rebuild, renovate, and/or reconfigure the jail, such a project could affect downtown generally and Camden's Promise Charter School in particular. The school plans a June 19 ribbon-cutting for its $1.6 million facility in the former Camden County YMCA - directly across Third Street from the jail.
A satellite campus of the Camden's Promise main facility in Cramer Hill, this new high school will facilitate student internships at downtown businesses and institutions. It also has an indoor pool.
The county would rather not disrupt or, worse, displace Camden's Promise. Beyond the size and footprint of a possibly reconfigured jail, questions remain about how and where to best provide reentry programs to reduce the 73 percent recidivism rate among inmates.
Let's give the freeholders credit: They want to offer more rehabilitation services, including addiction treatment. (Nearly 80 percent of inmates are alcohol and/or drug abusers.) In other words, they want to do the right thing for the inmates, virtually all of whom will return home at some point.
The jail can be improved, and services expanded, without taking the school's property. A better proposal making its way around would leave the school alone and buffer it from the jail by building a parking garage along Third Street.
Rebuilding the jail would better serve inmates and the public and improve downtown's redevelopment prospects. Maybe even save some taxpayer money, too.
But the bottom line also should include preserving Camden's Promise.