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Cumberland County officials report 14 cases of COVID-19 in jail staff
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Cumberland County officials report 14 cases of COVID-19 in jail staff

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Cumberland County jail

Cumberland County jail

BRIDGETON — Cumberland County officials on Tuesday said there have been 14 positive COVID-19 cases in county jail staff.

Eleven corrections officers and three civilian employees have tested positive, jail Warden Richard Smith said in a news release, adding “while we cannot control the exposures to the virus our officers encounter outside the jail, we are going to extraordinary lengths to minimize those exposures inside the jail.”

No inmates have tested positive, according to the release.

The release comes a week after Smith sent an email to The Press stating “we do not have 14 officers who are positive for COVID19.”

Smith made the statement in response to an assertion by Stuart Alterman, a lawyer representing the correction officers’ union in a civil lawsuit alleging officials failed to develop policies and provide necessary equipment for corrections officers ahead of the pandemic, that at least that number of officers was positive and that it would be “illogical” to this that no inmates have tested positive.

County Deputy Administrator Jody Hirata said Smith was correct in his original email that it wasn’t 14, rather they had 10 correctional officers and one civilian who tested positive as of last Wednesday.

Alterman said Tuesday that county officials are not being truthful and are “certainly not being transparent” about the jail’s handling of the pandemic, calling the release a public relations attempt that was nicely written, but failed.

“We were on top of this thing from the beginning, and it’s unfortunate that they weren’t,” he said. “We’re talking about lives here. We’re talking about families. We’re talking about the well-being of inmates, staff and the community.”

Last month, county Freeholder Jack Surrency said more than a dozen officers had tested positive. He called for reforms to the county’s Corrections Department, as well as hazard pay for officers.

Surrency on Tuesday sent a package of four resolutions to Freeholder Board Clerk Kimberly Wood concerning reforms to the jail.

The reforms include:

a resolution to provide hazard pay for corrections officers retroactive to March 9;

a resolution requiring the weekly mandatory reporting of all personal protection equipment on hand as well as all personal protection equipment ordered, but not yet received, regardless of source;

a resolution mandating the Cumberland County Department of Corrections perform weekly testing for COVID-19 as to corrections officers and civilian employees, establish protocols for access to weekly testing as to corrections officers, to publish weekly to the public data as to COVID-19 testing concerning corrections officers, staff and inmates, and to implement a policy of aggressive tracing as to any positive test;

and a resolution mandating the immediate adoption of the New Jersey Attorney General guidelines by the Cumberland County Department of Corrections with the updating of all applicable policies within 90 days.

“We need testing, reporting, contact tracing, PPE levels, state guidelines put in place and protocols established,” Surrency said. “This is the fight of our lives. County government needs to raise its game, and we need to do it now.”

Officers affected are isolating at home and will not return to work until they are medically cleared, receiving their normal base pay without the need to use their paid time off, Smith said.

Four officers and one civilian have already returned to work.

“There are a number of exceptional measures we have taken to reduce the chance of exposure to COVID, including work shift scheduling changes that result in a substantial amount of officers and staff working 40 hours in a two-week period that would normally require 80 hours,” Smith said. “Despite the schedule change, we continue to compensate those officers and staff as if they worked their normal shifts so that there is no loss in base pay.”

Officials have prohibited visitors from the jail, and all new inmates are screened by a nurse and placed in a 14-day quarantine, according to the release.

“We are using stringent screening, which requires everyone to be screened for temperature and COVID-19 symptoms upon entering the facility and, if a shift lasts beyond eight hours, screenings are repeated,” Smith said. “While COVID-19 has been an unprecedented epidemic, the control of infectious disease is part of our standard operations as they are frequently encountered in correctional facilities.”

County Freeholder Director Joseph Derella lauded the officials’ efforts.

“Implementing COVID-19 protocols in a jail or prison environment is extremely challenging,” Derella said. “With the full support of our Board of Freeholders, county administration and the county Prosecutor’s Office, Warden Richard Smith has utilized a comprehensive and integrated approach that includes the use of frequent enhanced disinfection and cleaning, use of temperature and health screening upon building entry, use of approved personal protective equipment, shift scheduling alterations, social distancing and the reduction in inmate population.”

The jail has also been dealing with a decrease in the inmate population following an order from Gov. Phil Murphy that mandated the release of certain nonviolent offenders to mitigate the spread of the new coronavirus, according to the release.

“Although we opposed the indiscriminate release of inmates who present a threat to public safety from our county jail, our county prosecutor has worked hard to ensure that only those who represent no threat to the community were released,” Derella said. “In April of 2019, our county corrections officers and staff were managing an inmate population averaging 320, while, in contrast, in April of 2020 we had 125 correctional staff managing an average daily inmate population of 205.”

“The reduction in the inmate population has allowed us to make schedule alterations that reduce the amount of time our officers and staff are inside the jail facility,” Smith said.

Corrections officers can get tested at Rowan College of South Jersey Cumberland Campus — Vineland Test Site, according to the release. Additional testing resources are available by request through the county Human Resources Department.Contact: 609-272-7241 Twitter @ACPressMollyB

Contact: 609-272-7241

Twitter @ACPressMollyB

Staff Writer

My beat is public safety, following police and crime. I started in January 2018 here at the Press covering Egg Harbor and Galloway townships. Before that, I worked at the Reading Eagle in Reading, Pa., covering crime and writing obituaries.

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