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No Job Losses Expected From Plan to Consolidate Prisons, Says State Corrections Department

by Bill Barlow, The Press of Atlantic City

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

MAURICE RIVER TOWNSHIP — Southern State Prison is set to close this year, state and local officials confirmed Wednesday, April 27.

“The state Department of Corrections is using the word ‘consolidation.’ Southern State Correctional Facility Compound A and Compound B are being consolidated into Bayside,” Maurice River Township Mayor Ken Whildin said.

A Department of Corrections spokesman said the department did not expect any job losses from the consolidation.

A drop in the number of inmates in New Jersey and the deteriorating condition of the prison were both cited as reasons for the planned closure.

Southern State and Bayside State Prison are next to each other, forming a sprawling prison complex off Route 47.

Southern State is in the Delmont section of the township, with Bayside in the adjoining Leesburg section. There is also a minimum security section known as “the farm,” where prisoners work on a dairy, which Whildin said will also be consolidated.

Southern State can hold more than 2,000 inmates. The two prisons combined employ about 1,500 people, including guards and civilian employees, Whildin said, a big number in this mostly rural community.

“It’s going to have a significant impact on the few small businesses that we have,” Whildin said, with fewer prison employees grabbing morning coffee or lunch from a nearby diner. “We have very few jobs here other than the prison.”

Whildin is a retired corrections officer who worked at both Southern State and Bayside. He said the consolidation is set to be completed by summer.

New Jersey Department of Corrections spokesman Dan Sperrazza confirmed that consolidation is under consideration.

“Department of Corrections is currently evaluating the possible consolidation of units at Southern State Correctional Facility and Bayside State Prison,” he said Thursday in an emailed response to a request for comment. “This potential consolidation is due to a number of factors including the decline in the incarcerated population, the deteriorating infrastructure at both facilities, and a staffing shortage in the southern region.

“We do not anticipate the elimination of any jobs resulting from any consolidations,” Sperrazza continued.

The state Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment on April 27, but state Sen. Michael Testa confirmed the consolidation plans.

“Southern State is going to be consolidated, mostly with Bayside, and some of the pods are going to close completely,” Testa said that same day. He said he has been getting information in “dribs and drabs” but confirmed Whildin’s account.

“I’m very concerned about potential job loss,” Testa said.

He said he has sought to make sure corrections officers are offered positions either at Bayside or at South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton.

Both men, and other sources, said the facilities at Southern State are in dire need of repairs. Testa said he did not have an exact estimate but said the facility needs tens of millions of dollars’ worth of work.

“They have trailers there that are essentially falling apart. There are structural and infrastructure issues at the current Southern State facility,” Testa said.

At one point, the prisons used not only temporary trailers to house inmates but also canvas tents lined up on fields, surrounded by tall fences. The tents are long gone, Whildin said, but the trailers remain.

A report from the Department of Corrections indicates there are 1,878 prisoners in Southern State, with a little more than 2,000 at Bayside, including at the farm. But those numbers are down, according to Testa and Whildin.

“There simply, from what I’m being told, aren’t enough prisoners to keep them open,” Testa said.

He cited an early release program enacted by Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration, in which more than 6,600 people were released in an attempt to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the prison population.

The move won praise from some quarters. The Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit advocacy group, reported that New Jersey prisons were operating over capacity and had the largest reduction in prison population of all 50 states in response to the pandemic, with the second highest vaccination rate.

The Public Health Emergency Credits Law took effect in November 2020, allowing someone with less than a year left in prison to get out up to eight months early.

Representatives of the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union stated that before the releases, New Jersey had the worst death rate from COVID-19 in prisons.