N.J. county’s scuttled jail is gift that keeps on giving | Editorial

The Cumberland County Jail may soon be gone, with its planned replacement also scuttled, but it’s the gift that keeps on bringing bad news during the holiday season.

In little more than the past week, the county reached a $150,000 settlement with a former inmate who claimed she’d been forced to have sex with several corrections officers; an energy contractor sued the county for $6 million over the canceled construction project; and a COVID-19 outbreak inside the existing facility prompted a serious demand by one freeholder for a state inspection.

An, oh, yes, intended layoffs of unionized corrections personnel are still on hold due to litigation, even though a judge has allowed plans to close the site — or, more precisely, turn it into a small collection of temporary holding cells — to proceed.

To refresh people’s memory, the freeholder board — now called the  board of commissioners — astonished most people when it decided this summer, informally at first, to pull the plug on a long-planned $65 million replacement for the downtown Bridgeton jail — even though a concrete slab had been poured for it at the new location, and $13.3 million from a bond issue had already been spent.

Joseph Derella, the commissioners’/freeholder director, supplied  some decent “good money after bad” arguments for both shutting the current location as a jail, scrapping the new one, and paying other counties to house its inmates. He estimated first-year savings at $8 million to $10 million, and stated they would climb in later years. The board eventually formalized its action, but Commissioner Jack Surrency, a lame-duck Democrat, maintains that the initial decision must have been made by osmosis. In September, he asked the state to investigate how the process was handled, including the fate of the mostly unspent bond issue.

It’s also Surrency — one of just two commissioners to oppose the out-of-county prisoner transfers in an October vote — who sounded the recent alarm about the COVID-19 outbreak. He stated that some 40 inmates and 11 employees had tested positive for the disease. It’s unclear whether these numbers, not verified by officials, are abnormal for a correctional facility of Cumberland County’s size.

Surrency may be something of a gadfly, but that doesn’t make him wrong for wondering about how financial issues over halting the jail replacement are being resolved.

In fact, if the lawsuit by CCJ Energy Partners LLC of Mays Landing has any merit, it could bolster Surrency’s reasons for curiosity. The company was to supply electricity and other utilities to the new jail through the development of private grids. CCJ maintains that it is due $6 million in “out-of-pocket” expenses for which it hasn’t been reimbursed.

If CCJ succeeds in prying any settlement money from the county, one must wonder how airtight its contracts were with other vendors regarding stipulations about cancelation of the project. If there is a parade of valid litigation or liens, the cost to taxpayers could well exceed the annual savings cited by Derella.

Meanwhile, the 121 Cumberland corrections officers, represented by Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local 231, continue to roil the waters over their probable job losses.

Given COVID-19 releases, a prison population that is shrinking statewide, and the availability of alternate jail accommodations, pulling the plug on Cumberland’s replacement jail was a fiscally prudent decision. But questions remain about the way the county commissioners unplugged themselves from their commitment. A check of whether all of the i’s were dotted and t’s were crossed is warranted.

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