By Joe Atmonavage
BRIDGETON, N.J. — A special master will be appointed to oversee a New Jersey jail after inmates filed a class action lawsuit alleging the county and jail officials failed to properly protect them during the coronavirus pandemic.
Cumberland County has agreed to enter into a consent decree that will appoint a special master to oversee the jail and to pay all fees related to the ongoing supervision.
The special master will make a report to the court within 45 days of being appointed detailing their findings related to how the county handled the pandemic in its jail, as well as what can be done to improve its practices moving forward.
“This reflects a good faith effort by the county,” U.S. District Court Judge Noel Hillman, who will retain ongoing jurisdiction over the jail and the supervision, said of the agreement. “Whatever mistakes may have been made in the past to move forward and to put into place the best jail the county can run under the difficult circumstances we all face, I think having a monitor here makes a lot of sense in trying to achieve that goal.”
“This is a win-win settlement,” he added
County officials said in a statement that the consent decree “safeguards the safety and health of inmates and staff.”
“The answer to this public health problem moving forward is to continue to adhere to COVID-19 safety protocols as they are updated and to vaccinate everyone who lives and works at the site and in the County,” the statement said. “We have the ability to make that happen at our County jail, but we will need everyone’s help to protect themselves, their families and the public.”
The consent decree comes after a two-week trial in which correctional officers, inmates, the warden and health and county officials testified to what was being done at the jail to protect its staff and inmate population from the deadly virus.
The trial was sparked by a lawsuit filed by inmates Raymond Lamar Brown, John Clark, Desmond Rodgers and Todd Ford, Jr., who have been detained at the jail during the pandemic, alleging they were denied masks, refused cleaning materials, unable to socially distance from infected inmates and denied COVID-19 testing.
“Because (the jail administration) have not taken adequate measures to control the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19, an ongoing crisis at the Cumberland Jail continues to threaten the lives of the inmates, the health and safety staff (nurses and doctors), correctional officers, and other staff living and working at the Cumberland Jail,” the lawsuit says.
The inmates originally sued the jail’s warden, Charles Warren, and the Cumberland County Department of Corrections. The case now includes the county.
The Cumberland County jail currently houses around 250 inmates, most of them pre-trial detainees.
Throughout the course of the pandemic, inmates and officers at the jail have publicly denounced the jail’s handling of the virus.
At least one inmate and one officer at the jail have died from the virus.
In his pre-trial brief, Gregg Zeff, who represented the county, said “the County and Jail worked diligently and together with medical provider CFG to obtain appropriate testing and PPE” and “implemented all procedures advised by the health professionals.”
Though the decision Thursday will now insert a third-party to oversee the jail to make sure that is happening.
“During COVID, since its inception we have suffered again resulting in deaths,” said Victor Bermudez, president of the union that represents correctional officers at the jail. “Accountability of the warden, county administrators and county commissioners will have to be transparent (with a special master) and we are hopeful to be a part of the process.”
Within the next five days, attorneys involved in the matter will pick a special master and present the person to Judge Hillman, who will have the power to accept or object the pick.
Once selected, the special master will file a full report on the jail and its handling of COVID-19. The special master will have access to the jail, inmates, county officials and health professionals who work at the jail.
Under the order, the special master will look into issues that were raised by inmates and staff at the jail during the pandemic such as testing, contract tracing, the facility’s quarantine and isolation practices, ventilation, personal protective equipment availability, cleaning supplies, social distancing and recreation time.
“We got all the relief we requested,” said attorney Jeffrey Pollock, who represented the inmates. “My hope is that with the supervision of the master, I have comfort now that what is supposed to be done will be done.”
The special master will provide oversight to the jail for an undetermined amount of the time. The county will have the ability to make an application to end the agreement when it feels it is no longer necessary, though ultimately, Judge Hillman will make the determination.
The county did not admit any wrongdoing in entering into the consent decree.
Judge Hillman said making sure the jail is run properly and protecting inmates as well as staff is vital to keeping the community at large safe as the pandemic continues.
“Proper running of the jail is a matter of public concern for all of the citizens of Cumberland County and the state as a whole,” the judge said.
The agreement to have oversight comes as tensions are high between county officials and the correctional officer’s union after the county moved to close the jail last year. In addition, the Department of Justice released a report in January outlining how the county and its jail “failed to take measures to prevent inmate suicides and provide adequate mental health care” after seven inmates died from suicide at the facility in recent years.
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