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DOJ Reaches Consent Decree with New Jersey Jail to Improve Mental Health Care

by David M. Reutter

On May 17, 2023, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed both a federal civil rights complaint and a proposed consent decree to resolve allegedly unconstitutional conditions at New Jersey’s Cumberland County Jail (CCJ). The filing ends a five-year investigation and aims to correct conditions that resulted in at least seven suicides between 2014 and 2018.

DOJ initiated the investigation on June 15, 2018, after seven took their own lives at the jail over four years. Filed pursuant to the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997a, the suit focused on whether CCJ and the county’s Department of Corrections provided adequate mental health care and took reasonable measures to prevent detainees from committing suicide As reported elsewhere in this issue, civil rights complaints filed by the survivors of those who died at the lockup have resulted in settlement payouts totaling almost $2.4 million. [See: PLN, Nov. 2023, p.22.]

Before filing the suit, DOJ issued a Findings Report on January 14, 2021, accusing CCJ of violating detainees’ Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights by “(1) failing to address the heightened risk of self-harm and suicide for incarcerated persons experiencing unmedicated opiate withdrawal; (2) failing to provide sufficient screening to identify incarcerated persons at risk of self-harm or in need of mental health care for a serious mental health condition; and (3) failing to provide sufficient mental health care to incarcerated persons with a clear need.”

The Consent Decree between the parties requires DOC to develop “enhanced policies and procedures” to resolve the unconstitutional conditions. Under the terms of the agreement, CCJ will conduct intake screening upon admission to assess opioid withdrawal and provision of Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) for those who have Opioid Use Disorder or are at risk of opiate withdrawal. At-risk detainees will be examined within 30 minutes by a qualified medical specialist for individualized treatment, which may include MAT, as well as visual checks at least every 15 minutes. Video monitoring is to augment the checks.

The agreement also requires CCJ to implement policies and procedures to provide mental health care and suicide prevention. It sets screening procedures and requirements for staffing, while also spelling out the allowable use of a detainee’s prior jail records and the continuity of reported medications. It further lays out specific requirements for mental health treatment plans and suicide prevention.

“The opioid epidemic is a public health emergency that plagues too many communities across the country,” said U.S. Attorney Philip R. Sellinger of the District of New Jersey. “Medications are a critically important tool in combatting the opioid crisis, and they save lives.” MAT, he added, provides a way that “officials at jails and prisons can take significant steps to combat both the opioid epidemic and protect the constitutional rights of their populations.” See: United States v. Cumberland Cty., USDC (D.N.J.), Case No. 1:23-cv-02655.  

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Related legal case

United States v. Cumberland Cty.