At least one inmate and four correctional officers at the Cumberland County jail tested positive for the coronavirus this week, officials said.
On Wednesday, one inmate at the jail and four correctional officers tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, said Jody Hirata, deputy administrator for Cumberland County. As a result, the jail is on lockdown to prevent inmates from moving around and control the spread of the virus, she said.
The inmate who tested positive is in isolation for 14 days, said Hirata. All four officers who tested positive will need to quarantine for 14 days and test negative for the virus after that period to return to work, she said.
Testing has been conducted on 22 officers that were working with the four officers who tested positive for COVID-19, said Hirata. Test results from Thursday were negative for all 22 officers, she said.
The outbreak was sparked when a correctional officer escorted the inmate to a video court appearance, said Hirata. Before testing positive, the correctional officer was asymptomatic and infected the inmate during the escort, she said. The officer was positive for the coronavirus and brought the virus “from the outside into the jail,” said Hirata.
Multiple calls to Warden Richard Smith were not returned.
To representatives for PBA Local 231, the union that represents around 120 correctional officers at the South Jersey jail, the new outbreak is just another in a string of failures on the part of Smith and the county to contain the virus and protect officers, civilian staff and inmates. In late spring, more than 10 percent of the officers working at the Cumberland County jail had tested positive for COVID-19, according to the union’s attorney and four correctional officers.
The first outbreak was the crest of problems that plagued the correctional facility earlier in the pandemic.
According to an internal memo obtained by NJ Advance Media, it wasn’t until April 6 that officers were required to wear masks for the entirety of their shifts. Officers were only given one blue surgical mask per week to use, according to several officers. At the time, one officer, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, described them as “flimsy” and highly irritable to wear for shifts that can stretch to up to 16 hours.
As a direct response to the outbreak, the union previously filed a lawsuit against Cumberland County calling for a special master to be appointed over the jail to “take over all decision-making concerning the Cumberland County Correctional Facility as it relates to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“Our main concern is the safety of the officers as well as the inmates and the civilian staff during a tumultuous time with the pandemic and in the midst of a jail closing,” union president Victor Bermudez told NJ Advance Media on Thursday. “We have a concern that COVID is spiking again in New Jersey. With that, we’re seeking guidance and guidelines as high as the governor’s office to intervene in any super-spreader-type situations as far as what’s going on with the jail’s closing and three different counties being involved to ship in inmates, too.”
Unlike New Jersey prisons, which are run by the Department of Corrections, county jails are under the purview of individual counties.
In the spring, Cumberland County Freeholder Jack Surrency called for “immediate reform” at the correctional facility, citing the high rate of officers who had contracted the virus, along with emphasizing the need for hazard pay. And in March, Surrency drafted a resolution to spend $15,000 to have every inmate at the facility tested, said Stuart Alterman, the union’s attorney.
Smith, along with Freeholder Director Joseph Derella Jr., refused to accept the resolution, said Alterman. A call to Derella was not immediately returned.
“We believe that they were just attempting to hide the fact and not draw attention to positive COVID cases and send them away as super-spreaders, in order to fit their narrative,” said Alterman.
In a public statement, Alterman said that Smith should be called “The Warden of the Super-Spreader” and said that jail equipment was not being properly cleaned and that there was a supply shortage for PPE.
But to Hirata, this latest outbreak is the direct result of correctional officers not taking the proper precautions when outside of the jail’s confines.
According to Hirata, the county reviewed social media posts that showed some correctional officers attending two social gatherings unmasked and without proper social distancing. Hirata cited recent reports that point to smaller social gatherings in private homes as the leading cause for the latest spikes in coronavirus cases across the country.
“This is the reason COVID numbers are increasing worldwide, nationwide, and in the state of New Jersey, because people are not taking COVID seriously,” Hirata said. “We are not able to control employees in their personal lives, but everyone has a personal responsibility to do the right thing.”
“They are blaming the warden and deputy warden, however, they are not following the protocols for COVID safety in their own lives and taking responsibility for their own actions,” Hirata added.
This week’s outbreak and the reaction by union and county officials underscores a continued tension and outright legal disputes between Smith, his administration, the county and the union.
Earlier this month, Derella announced that after already spending $13 million, a project to build a new jail was to be halted, and 115 county corrections department jobs would be eliminated. The layoffs were actually 121 jail employees, the union said, including 105 correctional police officers.
Union members protested the plan to layoff workers in September and eventually sued the county for its plan. The union is waiting on a court date before Judge Steven J. Polansky, according to the statement.
By the end of March, New Jersey’s county jail population dropped by more than 2,000 people, a drop that would presumably help fight the spread of the coronavirus in jails, considered by most health experts to be breeding grounds for the virus.
While there were 8,900 people in jail in early March, there were 6,875 three weeks later, almost a quarter fewer, according to data from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. At the Cumberland County jail, from March 1 to March 30, the inmate population dropped from 340 to 244 – a decrease of 96 inmates, or 28.2%.
The statewide drop in county inmates was the result of a mix of a large state release of county inmates, police arresting fewer people, an early decrease in crime and lawyers arguing successfully to free some inmates.
Last week, Governor Phil Murphy signed a first-of-its-kind bill into law to reduce sentences in the state’s prison system – which has the highest coronavirus death rate in the country – effectively releasing thousands of people. The bill was drafted and signed as New Jersey
About 2,088 people are expected to be freed Nov. 4, the day after Election Day, according to an estimate from the governor’s office. Around 1,000 more will also be released ahead of schedule in the following weeks through January, sources previously told NJ Advance Media.
Thank you for relying on us to provide the journalism you can trust. Please consider supporting NJ.com with a voluntary subscription.