When correctional police officers show up for their shifts at the Cape May County jail, they pull a mask over their face and get their temperature checked, a new routine aimed at mitigating the spread of COVID-19.
“The jail environment is different because you’re talking about a secure environment,” Sheriff Bob Nolan said. Inmates’ “lives depend on the officers being there to keep them safe and fed. These men and women go there every day and do their job.”
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So far, jails in Cape May and Cumberland counties have not reported any positive cases of the new coronavirus in staff or inmates.
But just how prepared county jails are and how clear they are of COVID-19 cases is not as straightforward, with one union disputing claims by jail officials.
Atlantic County has reported one case in an inmate after leaving the facility and about 20 staff members who were symptomatic and/or tested positive, self-isolated at home and have since been cleared as recovered and returned to work.
There are currently no staff out due to COVID-19, county spokeswoman Linda Gilmore said.
Jails are operated by the county in which they are located. The state does not track COVID-19 cases in these facilities as they do with prisons.
Officials attributed the lack of cases to new or revised procedures aimed at keeping the disease out of the jail and maintaining the safety of corrections officers and inmates.
Jails can be particularly vulnerable to outbreaks because of the nature of the facilities, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Incarcerated or detained people live, work, eat and recreate in group settings, and there are many opportunities for COVID-19 to be introduced through staff members, transfers of inmates from other facilities and the high turnover rates. Many inmates may have medical conditions that increase their risk.
The CDC released guidance for jails in March to prepare for the potential introduction, spread and mitigation of COVID-19 in facilities. Their guidance included ensuring there is enough personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies, as well as reinforcing hygiene practices, intensifying cleaning and disinfection of facilities, and screening intakes and staff.
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“It appears that the procedures we’ve put into place are working,” Nolan said. Corrections officers “are coping with the environment. Everyone is paying attention to cleanliness.”
Atlantic County officials said there is a sufficient supply of PPE and no complaints from staff about the equipment.
“The jail began prohibiting social visitors in early March and shortly thereafter implemented restrictions for visitors of any kind,” said Gilmore. “Symptom screenings and daily temperature checks are ongoing. Any employee who is ill is encouraged to stay home. Anyone who is symptomatic and meets the criteria for COVID-19 testing is tested.”
But at least one South Jersey jail is dealing with complaints from officers about sparse PPE and unsafe work conditions.
Last month, attorneys for PBA Local 231, the union that represents officers at the Cumberland County jail, filed a civil lawsuit claiming officials failed to develop policies and provide necessary equipment for corrections officers ahead of the pandemic.
Stuart Alterman, a lawyer representing the union, said officials were “completely unprepared,” citing a lack of masks, gloves and disinfectant, adding at least 14 corrections officers have tested positive and refuting the county’s claims that no inmates have the disease.
“In state prisons, where there is greater supply and greater efforts, multiple amounts of inmates have tested positive,” Alterman said. “It’s illogical to believe that no inmates have tested positive.”
Jail Warden Richard Smith said via email that officers have been issued masks, that there are plenty of gloves and cleaning supplies, and disputed the claim of positive cases, saying 14 officers have not tested positive and that the county has had a private disinfecting company work on the jail’s facilities and the vehicles twice so far.
“Let it be known that the only time Stuart Alterman is telling the truth is when his mouth is closed,” Smith said.
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Officers are dealing with added stress on top of the pandemic, union President Victor Bermudez said, and are afraid of what he described as a “prominent environment of retaliation” that could lead to a spike in post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It is unfortunate that during a crisis that we could not come together,” Bermudez said. “The union has exercised and extended many low forms of documented communication and resolutions to the wardens and current county government officials with little to no response.
“We are managing as best we can and appreciate the outpouring of responses and prayers locally and nationally,” Bermudez said.
Bermudez is on paid suspension pending termination from the facility.
“The officers may be scared to speak up and tell the truth about the efforts my administration has made to keep them safe due to the fact that they might be kicked out of the union and ostracized,” Smith said, adding officials will take their lead from the CDC, the state and the local Department of Health as it pertains to precautions, procedures and guidelines.
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The situation seems totally opposite in Cape May County, where Nolan said the community has donated hundreds of handmade cloth masks and he’s received an outpouring of supplies from county officials to keep inmates and staff safe.
He said he hasn’t heard any complaints from staff, whom he called the “epitome of essential workers.”
“The job of a corrections officer has to be, and in my estimation is, the hardest job,” Nolan said. “They are a special breed, and I’m thankful for every one of them.”