Cumberland County's financial dependence on guarding men and women behind prison bars continues to grow after more than four decades.

The latest venture involves housing prisoners from Gloucester County at the Cumberland County jail in Bridgeton, a program that should reap Cumberland County millions of dollars to help balance its budgets.

Those prisoners - the county will accept between 100 and 350, depending on space - will join thousands of inmates lodged in three state prisons located in Cumberland County. Bayside State Prison and Southern State Correctional Facility in Maurice River Township and South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton house about a third of the more than 23,100 inmates in all of the state's prisons.

Those three prisons also represent something else to Cumberland County - they make up perhaps the largest and most stable employer in a county with one of the worst economies in New Jersey.

The state Department of Corrections employs 1,591 Cumberland County residents. That represents about 19 percent of the department's entire work force. Of those employees, 1,534 work at Bayside, South Woods and Southern State.

The Cumberland County Department of Planning and Economic Development lists Inspira Health Network as the county's largest private-sector employer, with more than 2,800 workers. That figure includes Inspira's entire work force from several counties. Cumberland County's next largest private-sector employer is Durand Glass Manufacturing Co. in Millville, which has 970 workers.

U.S. Census Bureau data lists the median household income for Cumberland County from 2007 to 2011 as $52,004. The average state corrections department worker earned $69,394 in fiscal year 2012, with the figure standing at $72,915 for a senior corrections officer.

The federal Bureau of Prisons also operates a correctional facility in Fairfield Township. The number of inmates and prisoners at the facility was not available.

Cumberland County Freeholder Chairman William Whelan contends the county's 70,000-person labor pool - of which the state reports almost 13 percent was unemployed as of last month - would be in even worse shape without the state prison jobs.

"Without those prisons, unemployment is another two points higher," he said.

The deal to accept prisoners from Gloucester County's jail, which is scheduled to be shuttered this month, is something that Cumberland County officials say is necessary to help them close budget gaps.

Under the deal, Gloucester County will pay $100 per day for each prisoner lodged in Cumberland County's jail. Cumberland County officials say they expect to realize at least $3 million from the agreement annually. The county will get about $1.7 from the agreement this year.

The first 73 prisoners arrived at the Bridgeton facility on June 22 and 23. County officials said the number was expected to increase to about 120 by the end of last month.

Cumberland County Administrator Kenneth Mecouch said it is probable that the county will wind up realizing more than $3 million annually as the program progresses.

The agreement between Cumberland and Gloucester counties was not without controversy.

The Cumberland County Board of Chosen Freeholders approved the agreement in concept in March. Some county residents told the freeholders at that time the deal would result in more criminals staying in the county upon their release. They alleged that is happening with inmates released from the three state prisons.

"We do not want them," Vineland resident Steve Lewis told the board. "We do not need them."

While allegations that state prison inmates remain in Cumberland County after their release have been debated for decades, there is no hard evidence to show that it happens.

Corrections Department spokeswoman Dierdre Fedkenheuer said the department does not track where state prisoners go following their release. Department officials say they offer prisoners the opportunity to buy an NJ Transit bus or rail ticket to "aid in their transition into the community."

The New Jersey State Parole Board also does not track where ex-offenders go upon their release from a state correctional facility. Anecdotal information indicates that most state prisoners return their home counties upon release, they said.

Officials with the Cumberland County Board of Social Services did not respond to requests from The Press of Atlantic City for comment about the issue.

Bridgeton Police Chief Mark Ott said there are only "a couple of instances that stick in my mind" involving criminal problems related to people released from the state prisons in the county.

"That prison has been there a long time," he said of South Woods, which opened in 1997.

Still, Ott believes that the state should formally study where state inmates go upon their release. That might finally put the issue to rest, he said.

Whelan said objection to or support of all the prisons in Cumberland County is something with which officials and residents must live.

"Whether you like the fact that there is a prison in your backyard, the decisions were made years ago," he said.

Contact Thomas Barlas:

609-226-9197

State prisons in Cumberland

The state Department of Corrections operations three prisons in Cumberland County.

Bayside State Prison is located on more than 1,100 acres in the Leesburg section of Maurice River Township. The facility opened in 1970 and houses more than 2,100 prisoners in three operational units. The facility has 661 employees, including 404 from Cumberland County.

Southern State Correctional Facility occupies 77 acres in the Delmont section of Maurice River Township. The facility opened in 1983 and houses more than 2,000 prisoners in prefabricated, dormitory-style units. The facility has 646 employees, including 396 Cumberland County residents.

South Woods State Prison occupies 85 acres in Bridgeton and is the state's newest prison. The facility opened in 1997 and houses more than 3,400 prisoners, more than any other state prison. The prison has three medium-custody housing facilities and a minimum-custody housing unit. The facility has 998 employees, including 734 from Cumberland County.

Source: New Jersey Department of Corrections