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Cumberland Jail to Improve Mental Health Services Following Inmate Deaths

by Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, New Jersey Monitor

This story is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. Link to story:

Cumberland County will provide adequate mental health treatment and access to medication for incarcerated people struggling with opioid withdrawal under a proposed consent decree after the Department of Justice investigated the jail following the suicides of seven inmates.

The agreement stems from allegations that between 2014 and 2020, jail officials treated inmates experiencing withdrawal and at risk of self-harm or suicide with “deliberate indifference,” federal prosecutors said last week. The Justice Department alleged jail officials violated the Eighth and 14th Amendments of the Constitution by denying mental health treatment and medical assistance.

“The Justice Department is committed to protecting the civil rights of everyone in our country, and under our Constitution, jails and prisons must provide adequate medical care to incarcerated individuals,” said U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland. “Today’s proposed consent decree is a significant step toward improving the care of individuals incarcerated in Cumberland County who are struggling with serious mental health disorders, and toward protecting the civil rights that are guaranteed by our Constitution.”

The proposed consent decree, filed in federal court in Camden, still must be approved by a court, federal officials told reporters recently.

The jail, located in Bridgeton, houses about 300 people. Jail officials should have been using medication-assisted treatment and therapies to treat opioid withdrawal, but instead routinely used treatment generally used for people experiencing alcohol withdrawal, federal officials said.

Philip Sellinger, the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, said each of the seven inmates who died by suicide exhibited signs of withdrawal from opioids at the time of their deaths, but jail officials refused to provide medication-assisted treatment.

“This was policy and practice. You can’t pick and choose whose rights matter—everyone’s do,” he told reporters Wednesday. “People don’t leave their rights at the jailhouse door.”

The agreement will require the jail to increase mental health staffing and implement assessments for mental health, opioid withdrawal, and suicide risk. It also calls for an independent monitor to ensure compliance and issue public reports, said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke.

The federal probe at the jail began in 2018 following the deaths of six inmates in three years. Another suicide occurred one month after federal officials began investigating, according to a 2021 report from the Department of Justice.

In that report, federal officials informed the county of the allegations and gave written notice of what officials should do to resolve them. The Justice Department said the county “fully cooperated” with the investigation.

“This consent decree marks a significant milestone in the Justice Department’s efforts to combat discrimination against those with opioid use disorder and to protect the civil rights of people in our jails and prisons,” Clarke said.