New Jersey's public defenders are going to court to stop Gloucester County from closing its county jail and splitting its 250 to 350 inmates among four other county jails, including one in Newark.
Not only will the move make it difficult for public defenders to help their clients, but the Gloucester County Board of Chosen Freeholders' decision to close the facility is a violation of state regulations, the lawsuit says.
"We do not, as a matter of policy, comment on matters involving litigation," Gloucester County spokeswoman Debra Sellitto responded Monday.
On March 9, the freeholders passed a resolution to close the Woodbury jail, effective June 1.
Filed Friday in Burlington County Superior Court by state Public Defender Joseph Krakora, his office, and three inmates at the jail, the suit seeks both temporary and permanent injunctions against the closing.
Burlington County Superior Court Judge Ronald E. Bookbinder will hear arguments May 24 in Mount Holly. He is already hearing arguments that day on a related suit filed by the unions representing 120 Gloucester County corrections officers, most of whom will lose their jobs if the closing occurs.
Besides the Gloucester County Board of Chosen Freeholders, the lawsuit names as defendants the four counties that are likely to receive Gloucester's inmates - Cumberland, Salem, Burlington, and Essex.
"This could be a nightmare for public defenders who have 100 indictable cases and 100 files in one stage or another, and who struggle to see their clients in a jail that's right next to their office," said the attorney representing the public defenders, Justin T. Loughry, of Loughry & Lindsay L.L.C. in Camden.
"This case raises extremely important constitutional issues," including the right to due process and the right to the effective assistance of attorneys, said Loughry, a former public defender.
The lawsuit says the eight public defenders who work in Woodbury generally carry a caseload of more than 250 defendants, most of them men who cannot afford their own lawyers and are housed in the jail because they don't have enough money to make bail.
The public defenders rely on jail visits to get familiar with the cases because there is no space at the courthouse for attorney-client conversations, the suit says.
Space for attorney-client conversations is also limited at the other jails. Because inmates could be moved without warning, the attorneys would have to try to locate their clients each time they would want to talk or send a letter.
The county has said it would transport inmates back to Woodbury to meet with lawyers upon their attorneys' request.
Gloucester's public defenders also represent female and juvenile inmates who have already been transferred out of the county, the women to facilities in Salem and Camden Counties and the juveniles to Camden, Burlington, and Middlesex Counties.
The lawsuit also raises other objections:
The Gloucester County freeholders should have sought the approval of the state Department of Corrections before making its decision.
The jail, opened in 1983 to accommodate 118 inmates, now typically houses more than double that number, relying on state waivers. If the facility closes, the waivers will expire, making it an expensive and complicated undertaking to reopen it.
The wholesale transfer of inmates may not happen without the permission of the court, according to state law.
The closing of the jail imposes a hardship on inmates, because it isolates them from their families and community support.