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Report questions Cumberland jail leaders' ability to make long list of needed reforms

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Cumberland County jail

The Cumberland County jail in Bridgeton

An attorney investigating conditions at the Cumberland County jail recommended a long list of reforms to protect the health of inmates in his final report to a federal judge Tuesday. 

But in the same report, the attorney said he lacks faith in current leaders to make the changes happen.

"We question whether the critical paths outlined and recommendations made herein can be achieved or if they are beyond the capabilities of the current leadership," attorney William J. Hughes said in the report to Judge Noel L. Hillman.

The Cumberland County Board of Commissioners is attempting to close the facility, reversing an earlier decision to build a new $65 million jail. 

Hillman is handling a lawsuit by a group of inmates suing the jail and the county over what they call a lack of protections against COVID-19.

Hughes, a partner in the law firm Porzio, Bromberg and Newman, was appointed special master to investigate and report to the court on a variety of virus-related issues. 

The first two reports from Hughes focused on COVID-19 testing, cleaning procedures and supplies, personal protective equipment and more.

Hillman had used those reports to order changes in the way supplies and PPE were made available to inmates, but according to testimony at recent hearings, some officers at the jail have refused to implement the judge's orders and no supervisor has enforced them.

The third and final report released Tuesday looked at the last items on the list, which included inmates' lack of access to recreation and to the law library, both required by law.

"CCJ must immediately provide inmates the opportunity to participate in a minimum of one hour of physical exercise and recreation each day outside the living unit," Hughes said.

The jail must immediately make library services available to inmates daily, excluding weekends and holidays or during emergency incidents, Hughes said.

"If CCJ cannot provide these required opportunities to inmates due to staffing shortages, then CCJ must reduce the inmate population to such a degree that there is adequate staff to immediately provide them," Hughes wrote.

Two wardens have quit since January, and the county Board of Commissioners then appointed retired State Police Capt. Stanley B. Field to serve as interim jail operations director, then gave jail oversight to county Sheriff Robert Austino for a time.

Earlier this month, Commissioner Director Joseph Derella said in a news release the county has signed a shared services agreement to share Gloucester County Warden Eugene J. Caldwell II.

Caldwell will be interim warden at the Bridgeton jail through April, and the agreement allows for the deal to be extended.

Hughes said there is a root cause of the jail's poor performance and inability to make court-ordered improvements, saying there is "a lack of communication and accountability that is exacerbated by the distrust and concern over the future of continued operations of the jail."

The county's attempts to close the facility have been complicated by legal filings. 

Last month, 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. It essentially upheld a Superior Court decision that allowed the county to close the jail.

County attorney Gregg 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

"If the policy is not clear and effectively communicated, it will fail. If it does not clearly indicate who is responsible for carrying out the policy or procedure, it will fail. And if the individuals charged with the responsibility fail or refuse to implement the policy or procedure without consequence, it will fail," Hughes wrote. "Our investigation, interviews and inspections reveal that all three circumstances are present here. Sadly, this is the issue that must be addressed first, because any policy or procedure that is employed will be doomed to failure if the constituent parties continue to act in the manner in which they have in the past."

Special Master Bill Hughes Jr.
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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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