by Edward B. Lyon, Jr.
The Cumberland County jail in Bridgeton, New Jersey, parts of which are nearly 80 years old, is scheduled for replacement in 2020. Meanwhile, the facility has been plagued with a high prisoner suicide rate and staff misconduct. From July 2014 to May 2017, four male and two female prisoners hanged themselves, their bodies later found hanging in the infirmary, the showers or their cells.
The People’s Organization for Progress and the American Friends Service Committee’s Prison Watch Program have called for an investigation into conditions at the jail. New Jersey’s Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers put its request for an investigation into a petition to the state Attorney General’s office.
“Individuals in custody – and their loved ones – have a reasonable expectation that they will be appropriately monitored, screened and secured while they remain in custody. That is especially true for those who have not been convicted and are being held on bail awaiting trial,” the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers wrote.
In February 2017, Richard Smith, a 25-year veteran of the New Jersey Department of Corrections, was appointed the new warden to oversee the Cumberland County jail. Eight more cells were designated suicide-prevention status, and signs were installed to tell prisoners they may seek “professional help” should they feel depressed or suicidal. Smith sent 40 guards for specialized training, as well as two more to a K-9 academy to learn how to use dogs to intercept contraband.
“We had security issues with contraband coming into the facility,” Smith stated. “We have stationed more officers in the lobby who have been trained in different search methods so that people don’t bring things in from the outside.”
On February 28, 2017, Cumberland County’s Board of Chosen Freeholders approved a $20,000 contract to hire Dr. Kenneth W. Faistl to review medical practices at the jail, where classification and intake medical screenings are conducted by an independent contractor.
“We want to change lives here, not lose them,” said Smith, pointing to jail programs designed to help prisoners obtain a GED, write a résumé and prepare for job interviews.
However, he also said the state’s efforts at bail reform have had the unintended consequence of returning opioid addicts to the community without getting the help they need to deal with their addictions while incarcerated.
“Some of the folks who are released could use the extra time to go through programs and get off drugs,” Smith said. “We’re trying to help them as much as we can.”
On May 19, 2017, the jail received a $500,000 grant to fund several prisoner assistance programs. But the very next day, the facility suffered its sixth suicide since 2014 when prisoner David Conroy hanged himself.
In September 2017, county prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae charged guards Justin C. Cimino, 40, and Nicholas A. Gomez, 27, with endangering another person and tampering with public records, for allegedly making false entries in the close-watch records for Conroy.
That same month, former guard Tabatha Roman, 31, was indicted for the third-degree felony offense of endangering another person. She allegedly failed on February 20, 2017 to perform a close-watch check on prisoner Megan Moore, 21, who hanged herself later that day. According to the indictment, by failing to perform close-watch checks on Moore, Roman “knowingly engaged in conduct which created a substantial risk of death to another person.”
On April 9, 2018, Gomez and Cimino were approved to enter a pre-trial diversion program; if they successfully complete the program, all charges will be dismissed. However, both had to resign and agree to forfeit any future public employment.
The families of Moore and Conroy have filed lawsuits. The suit on Moore’s behalf also includes the estates of four other prisoners who committed suicide at the jail: Alissa Allen, 24; David Hennis, 31; Robert Lewis, 35; and Jon Watson, 34. The defendants, Cumberland County, current and former wardens Richard Smith and Robert Balick, 10 jailers and private medical contractor CFG Health Systems, are accused of maintaining a “woefully deficient system” for tracking prisoners’ mental health care.
Additionally, in October 2017, a federal civil rights complaint was filed by former prisoner Jennifer Cantoni, who alleged she was forced to have sex with several guards at the jail, who then shared nude photographs of her and met her after her release for more sexual encounters.
Along with the county, the defendants in her lawsuit include guards John Barry, Will Bailey and Lt. Brad Pierce, all of whom were accused of inappropriate conduct while Cantoni was incarcerated in 2015 and 2016, when she gave birth to a son at the jail.
The suit also accuses guards Carl Ranier, Eddie Ortoz, Vandal Lee and Johnnie Gomez of similar misconduct against Cantoni during her previous stints at the jail. Knowing that Cantoni was an addict and could be coerced, the complaint claims that “even when she was not incarcerated, many of the guards contacted Jennifer to have sex for money.”
The various jail-related lawsuits filed against Cumberland County remain pending.
Sources: www.dailytimes.com, www.thedailyjournal.com, www.nj.com, www.pressofatlanticcity.com
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