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Three NJ Counties Merging Jails To Save Money

by Nyah Marshall, NJ Advance Media for

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Salem, Gloucester and Cumberland counties plan to merge their inmate populations into a single, 900-bed jail facility in Salem County in a move officials say will save millions in taxpayer money.

The three South Jersey counties recently approved plans to begin renovating Salem County’s correctional facility in Mannington Township to accommodate all three county inmate populations.

Gloucester County has been sharing jail services with Salem for over a decade following the closure of its correctional facility in 2013.

Under the original deal, Gloucester pays Salem $100 per inmate per day for use of the jail, saving Gloucester $10 million annually, county officials said.

However, a few months after Salem County began accepting Gloucester inmates, the facility in Mannington was nearly at capacity, the warden said at the time.

Cumberland County has also been searching for a sustainable and cost-efficient solution to accommodate its jail population, said Harold Johnson, the county’s administrator.

The current Cumberland jail facility in Bridgeton doesn’t have the capacity to house its average of 400 detainees daily. About half of Cumberland’s inmate population is at Hudson County’s facility, where the South Jersey county pays $104 per day to house inmates, Johnson said.

“It‘s been very taxing on the county, it’s been very expensive for the county taxpayers,” Johnson said. “And this will correct that problem, because we would no longer have to house our inmates in Hudson.”

Salem, Gloucester and Cumberland counties, which already share a court system, are still in the planning stages of the project and have held meetings with local justice system personnel to decide on the best design for the facility.

Salem County’s correctional facility can currently fit about 400 inmates daily, so it will need to be expanded, said Mickey Ostrum, Salem’s commissioner deputy director.

“It appears that we need double that capacity so we will be adding to the existing complex,” Ostrum said.

A recent study determined the joint facility will need 800 to 900 beds to accommodate the anticipated future growth in the inmate population, officials said. Currently, Salem’s inmate population has decreased to 100, Gloucester’s is around 200 and Cumberland’s is about 400.

A plan to begin the process of creating a joint authority that will govern the shared jail is already in the works, officials said. However, the details need to be approved by the state Department of Community Affairs for the counties to move forward.

The project, which will save Salem $8 million to $10 million annually, is expected to be complete in three years, following state approvals, county officials said.

Cumberland and Gloucester counties will cover the construction expenses to expand the Salem facility through bonds, according to Salem officials. After it’s complete, the jail’s additional expenses will be divided among Gloucester and Cumberland counties based on the residency of the inmate population.

No corrections officers in any of the three counties will lose their jobs or be demoted in the process of combining the jails, according to county administrators.

Cumberland County officials said the agreement is the solution they’ve been looking for to address their need for a cost-effective way to house inmates. The county’s correctional facility in Bridgeton is aging and it would cost more to update it than to move its operations elsewhere, official said.

A solution was previously proposed in 2019, when the county secured a $65 million bond to replace the correctional facility with a new jail. However, a year later, officials scrapped the plan, deeming it economically unfeasible.

Cumberland officials then proposed transferring their inmates to other correctional facilities and closing the county jail. The state Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling allowing Cumberland County to proceed with closing the jail, despite protests and concerns about relocating detainees and potential officer layoffs.

Cumberland’s jail has also been under scrutiny and investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice after several suicides. The investigation found that jail staff failed to take preventive measures or provide adequate mental health help.

With the new shared service agreement, the Cumberland County Correctional Facility will close, officials said. While most of the property will be torn down, part of it, located near the county courthouse, may be transformed into a juvenile detention center, according to Johnson.

Cumberland, Salem, and Gloucester counties have all closed their juvenile detention centers over the years, leaving seven centers in New Jersey, according to officials.

“Right now, Cumberland is sending their children to Essex County and it’s not good for the families … it’s not good for the court system,” said Johnson. “So we’re exploring the possibility of having (the county jail) become a juvenile detention center.”

Other New Jersey counties have also entered into shared correctional facility service agreements. Union County began closing most of its operations at its county jail in 2021 and started housing detainees at the Essex County jail. The move was expected to save Union more than $103 million over five years.