BRIDGETON — Six suicides over the last three years, and recent criminal charges against county corrections officers don’t reflect the efforts to improve the Cumberland County jail, Warden Richard Smith said Friday.
Smith, who took over as warden in February after a 25-year career at the N.J. Department of Corrections, said the county has made numerous changes to policy and rehabilitation programs at its jail. He said his top priorities are restoring full accountability and professionalism among staff to make sure everyone, from inmates to corrections officers, thrives in a safe environment.
But work remains at the jail. On Thursday, county Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae announced three corrections officers have been charged in two separate incidents that led to the suicide of inmates at the jail. Corrections officers Tabatha Roman, 31, of Vineland, Justin Cimino, 40, of Vineland, and Nicholas Gomez, 27, of Millville, all face endangerment charges in the deaths of two inmates. They face a Nov. 9 court date.
There is also a lawsuit, filed by Philadelphia attorney Conrad Benedetto on behalf of families of inmates Megan Moore, Alissa Allen, David Hennis, Robert Lewis and Jon Watson, all of whom were found dead in the county jail since 2015.
The lawsuit, which names Cumberland County, Smith, the previous warden, Robert Balicki, 10 unnamed corrections officers and CFG Health Systems LLC, alleges a “woefully deficient system” for dealing with inmates.
Smith said he cannot comment on any pending charges but said the jail is working hard to make necessary changes.
“We’re trying to peel back the onion and make sure we’re doing the best job that we can to make sure everyone is safe,” Smith said. “The county freeholders have been 100 percent behind us and have given us a huge amount of support.”
Some of the immediate changes the jail has made are hiring more staff and revamping some rehabilitation programs. Smith said 40 officers are being trained in the academy and officials are looking to send 20 more.
One of the problems the county ran into was waiting for the civil service list so it could hire more officers.
The county has also sent two officers to the John “Sonny” Burke K-9 Academy in Corbin City to train them on how to use dogs at the jail to make sure contraband stays out.
“We had security issues with contraband coming into the facility,” Smith said. “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.”
As for the inmates, Smith said he is committed to making sure the jail has top-notch rehabilitation programs that help the inmates get GEDs, write their resumes and give lessons on how to approach a job interview.
They have also installed signs telling inmates there is professional help available if they feel depressed or suicidal. Some staff members have been trained to spot signs of depression and suicidal tendencies.
Eight extra cells also have been designated for suicide prevention.
“We want to change lives here, not lose them,” Smith said. “We want the inmates to take advantage of our programs.”
But Smith said treating people can be a challenge with the state’s new bail-reform policies. He said many of the people who come into the jail have addiction issues and that people don’t understand how serious the opioid epidemic is until they see it face-to-face.
Smith said that while he believes it is good people aren’t sitting in jail for low-level crimes, some end up back in the system because they can’t help their addictions.
“Some of the folks who are released could use the extra time to go through programs and get off drugs,” he said. “We’re trying to help them as much as we can.”
The warden said another ongoing issue is the age of the facility, which costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to maintain. Parts of the jail have been there since the 1950s, and the “new” section was built in the 1980s.
The warden and county government are in the process of getting a new jail built, which they hope will open by the first quarter of 2020.
Benedetto said these moves are a positive first step in making things right at the jail.
The lawsuit continues to work its way through discovery, he said.
“Any time you have an administrative body that recognizes there are problems, it’s a good thing,” Benedetto said. “We’ll see how they carry out all these changes in the future.”