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Federal judge blasts Cumberland County officials over jail failures
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Federal judge blasts Cumberland County officials over jail failures

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Cumberland County jail

The Cumberland County jail in Bridgeton

The federal judge in an inmate lawsuit against the Cumberland County jail lost his patience with the county in an evidentiary hearing Friday after it was clear no one at the hearing was serving as warden in the troubled facility.

Warden Charles Warren resigned last month in the midst of the federal lawsuit by inmates who allege the jail is not protecting them from COVID-19. Warren had been the warden since January, having replaced Richard Smith, who also had resigned.

The Cumberland County Board of Commissioners appointed retired State Police Capt. Stanley B. Field to serve as interim jail operations director for the county for a period of a few weeks, while the county finds a new warden.

“Who will take responsibility to ensure my orders are complied with?” asked U.S. District Judge Noel Hillman fairly early in the online hearing regarding Brown vs. Warden of Cumberland County Jail.

No one answered right away, and finally the county’s attorney Gregg Zeff said the highest ranking officer in the jail is a captain who does not want the responsibility.

“You’ve been sued. I’ve entered orders. I need a warm human being,” Hillman said. “I need a name. I’ll sign off for now.”

The court took a 25-minute break while Zeff spoke with officials, then came back and said Sheriff Robert Austino would step in to take responsibility for the jail in the case.

The county continued to anger the judge during the hearing, a continuation of a series of hearings in the case. At one point, when he asked county officials about the status of a written COVID policy for the jail, no one could say exactly what the status was of a comprehensive document.

The bulk of the testimony came from Sgt. Shane Zanes, who said he is responsible for training corrections officers and was charged with installing lockers of cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment in all of the jail’s pods to help inmates avoid contracting COVID-19.

Hillman had issued an Aug. 6 order that the supplies be provided by 2 p.m. Aug. 16, but Zanes said he was not aware of the order until about two weeks ago. He said he did install the lockers, but that some officers had told him they would not comply with the jail’s instructions to keep the supplies restocked.

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He also testified that the jail has not complied with the judge’s order on cleaning supplies because corrections officers have refused to cooperate.

Zanes gave conflicting testimony about when he wrote reports related to the installation and other issues, which angered Hillman further.

Later, when Zeff resisted the judge’s instruction to provide the inmates’ attorney, Jeffrey Pollock, with a full range of documents related to a forensic audit of jail computers, Hillman erupted.

“I’ve got perjury today … destroyed documents, backdated documents,” Hillman said. “I have never seen a public entity act this way in disregarding the court.”

He instructed Zeff to tell his witnesses “to tell the truth, and not to destroy documents.”

“The testimony has been rather shocking at times. I have been as surprised and dismayed as the court has at what has come out,” Zeff said.

Hillman ended the hearing on an optimistic note, encouraging the county to do better and begin fully complying with his orders in hopes things will go smoother moving forward.

He ordered a continuation of the hearing for Monday.

Last week, the New Jersey Supreme Court cleared a path for the facility to close, having rejected an appeal from the state Office of the Public Defender.

The appeal sought to overturn a decision by the Superior Court that allowed the county to close the jail, Jody Hirata, a county spokesperson, said in a statement last week.

Zeff said the female inmates have already been transferred to the Atlantic County jail. He said Atlantic County was too full to take the male inmates.

REPORTER: Michelle Brunetti Post

609-272-7219

mpost@pressofac.com

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Staff Writer

In my first job after college got paid to read the New York Times and summarize articles for an early online data base. First reporting job was with The Daily Record in Parsippany. I have also worked in nonprofits, and have been with The Press since 1990.

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