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Alex Brandon  

FILE — In this Oct. 24, 2019 file photo, President Donald Trump stands during a Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony for auto racing great Roger Penske in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Charles J. Olson 

St. Joseph's Tyrell Russell runs the ball against Holy Spirit during Saturday's game on November 2, 2019. Photo/Charles J. Olson

'A sad and isolating experience': Inequity, lack of resources for women in South Jersey jails

Each time she was booked into the Cumberland County jail, Leanne Taylor was strip searched and issued two orange, ill-fitting jumpsuits, a hand towel, blanket and sheet, and a pair of flip-flops.

“If you’re a woman and your bra has underwire, you can’t wear it; if your underwear isn’t white, you can’t have it,” said Taylor, who spent a decade in and out of the jail from the mid-1990s until 2004. “You’re basically naked with this orange jumpsuit on.”

For women, each day in county jails spent waiting for trial or serving a sentence includes moments of inequity simply because they are existing within an institution that was, historically, designed for and by men.

They struggle to get menstrual products, mental health and substance abuse help, and support for children on the outside.

As the rate of women going to jail increases across the country, administrators are working to provide programming and resources to meet their needs. But for women who spent time behind bars in South Jersey — where, experts say, the number of women entering jails has been bucking national trends since bail reform began — officials’ efforts aren’t enough.

Taylor, 43, of Galloway Township, who went to the Cumberland County jail for stints lasting days to months, had charges stemming from her addiction, she said. As her behavior got more erratic, compulsive and criminal in the pursuit of drugs, she picked up charges for drug and paraphernalia possession, theft and shoplifting.

“We’re not credible sources of information, addicts and criminals,” Taylor said. “So they can basically treat us however they see fit, and they know whoever we tell that they aren’t going to believe us.”

From 1970 to 2014, the number of women in jail across the U.S. increased from fewer than 8,000 to almost 110,000, according to “Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform,” a 2016 study by the Vera Institute of Justice and the Safety and Justice Challenge. In 1970, almost three-quarters of counties didn’t have one woman in jail.

Data on average daily populations in jails in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties from 1970 do not exist, according to county officials’ responses to Open Public Records Act requests. However, when 2017 numbers are compared with those from 2009, Atlantic County has seen a decrease in both men and women, while The Cumberland County jail’s statistics for the average daily population of women were blank for 2009, but from 2010 to 2017, the number of women incarcerated was cut by half.

David Kelsey, warden of the Atlantic County jail, said through a county spokeswoman there has been no significant rise in the number of women in the jail over the years. He said the jail has programs for both men and women, such as re-entry support, with some specifically targeted at pregnant, opioid-addicted women and women facing unplanned pregnancy.

Jail officials in Cape May and Cumberland counties did not respond to requests for comment.

Many women in jail are there for nonviolent drug and property crimes, said Nathan Link, assistant professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University-Camden.

“If you’re going to crack down on things like drugs or petty crimes, that’s naturally going to lead to the arrest of more women,” said Link, referencing the war on drugs of the 1980s and zero-tolerance policies of the 1990s, saying there’s no perfect answer but lots of factors that contribute to more women in jail.

The state’s Bail Reform and Speedy Trial Act, enacted in 2017, is working to keep more low-risk women out of jail, Link said, directing the trend down while the number of women in many other county-run facilities across the country continues to rise.

Lydia Thornton, an inmate advocate, said that shift has occurred over the past several decades, equalizing how men and women are treated by law enforcement, but it’s had a “backfire effect” on mass incarceration.

“Forty years ago, I truly believe most of these women would have been cut loose because they had a family at home, because they had children,” Thornton said, speaking specifically about those with lower-level drug offenses. “There’s also the reality that the system no longer cares if they have children at home, if they’re a primary caretaker.”

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Thornton, who spent time in jails in Mercer and Somerset counties before serving time at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Union Township, Hunterdon County, for a forgery conviction, said if a single mother goes to jail, children go into placement with a family member or the foster care system.

“Meanwhile, two things are happening,” Thornton said. “Your children are detached from you. And, if they’re in the system, or if a relative applies for any assistance, then the woman is being hit with child support.”

Charges accrue while the women are in jail, Thornton said, leaving them with an additional bill to pay the second they get out. Men deal with this issue, too, but it isn’t talked about as often with women, she added.

Then there are the day-to-day inequities women inmates have to deal with, like struggles to receive sanitary products during menstruation and ill-fitting uniforms.

Taylor said that, while she was in jail, sanitary napkins were available for purchase, but she knew many who couldn’t afford them, instead using part of their one-roll-per-week allotment of toilet paper.

And substance abuse help, like Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, wasn’t available to women in the jail either, Taylor said. Officials missed a good opportunity to reach out to women who needed help and provide them with resources, or at least information on how to get involved in those programs once they get out, she said.

“They did nothing to promote anyone getting better with anything in life. I think it’s important that people know that. When you go there, you’re really going to be in a cage, four women in a room,” Taylor said. “If I were to ever want to see something change there, for any woman, I would hope that they could have anything in place to help them help themselves, so they’re not caught up in a dance of in and out, in and out like I was.”

How mail-in ballots are expected to affect this year's elections

Pundits are predicting low turnout for Tuesday’s election in New Jersey, based on the Assembly being at the top of the ticket, except in the 1st Legislative District, and a lack of familiarity with issues and candidates found in polls.

But that doesn’t mean it will be a simple election to process, officials said.

“We are already up to 8,300 mail-in ballots received,” Atlantic County Board of Elections Chairwoman Lynn Caterson said Friday, of the 19,400 mailed out to voters by the Atlantic County Clerk’s Office.

The last time the Assembly was at the top of the ticket in 2015, 4,532 mail-in ballots were cast in Atlantic County.

So even if turnout at the polls is similar to the 30% countywide in 2015, there are already twice the number of paper ballots to process, count, investigate and make a decision on than there was in 2015.

That’s the result of a new state law, passed in late August, requiring that mail-in ballots be sent to everyone who requested one from 2016 through 2018, Atlantic County Clerk Ed McGettigan said.

And they are still coming in.

“Historically we get people (coming in to request mail-ins) right up to Monday afternoon,” McGettigan said.

Vote-by mail-applications can be made up to 3 p.m. Monday, and as long as they are postmarked by Election Day, they will be counted if they arrive at the Board of Elections within 48 hours of the close of polls.

“We have hired more staff — about doubled it,” Caterson said. And they are working longer hours, to get the returned ballots credited to the correct voter. The mail-ins won’t be opened and counting won’t start till after midnight Election Day, she said. In close elections, results will be significantly delayed, she said, as each ballot has to be opened, examined and tallied by one Republican and one Democrat.

If anyone challenges a ballot’s signature or other factors, an investigation must be done that takes more time.

Montclair State University Professor of Political Science and Law Brigid Harrison said the 2015 election set a record low for turnout, with only 22% of registered voters statewide casting ballots. She doesn’t expect this year’s turnout to be that low.

“If you’ll recall that year ... it was while Chris Christie was still entertaining a presidential run. There was an enormous amount of political fatigue in New Jersey,” Harrison said.

The changes in state law regarding mail-in ballots will also increase voting, she said.

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“I have a 25-year-old daughter who registered to vote by mail in college (in 2016),” Harrison said. “She has already voted by mail. I’m not sure she would have gone out to vote in an Assembly election.”

In Cape May County, the numbers of mail-ins are also large. Clerk Rita Fulginiti said her office has sent out 8,586 mail-in ballots this year, and by Friday had received back 4,869. That’s compared with 2,556 received in 2015.

“Of course because of the change in the (state) law, many more people are getting mail-in ballots,” said Fulginiti. “We are prepared for folks to come to the polls and be given a provisional ballot if they had been issued a mail-in.”

Even if a voter hasn’t returned the mail-in ballot, the fact they received one makes them ineligible to vote by machine. They must fill out a paper provisional ballot, which is time-consuming to process.

Fulginiti said the county is encouraging people who received a mail-in to use it this election, even if they prefer to vote in person. They can fill out an opt-out form to not receive them in the future. The forms can be downloaded online, or filled out at the clerk’s office.

“But if they come to the polls, they will be given a provisional and they can opt out at the polls,” Fulginiti said. “It’s a little chaotic, but we’ll get it done.”

The new law passed so late, there wasn’t enough time to educate voters and give them time to fill out opt-out forms before the automatic mail-in ballots had to be sent, Fulginiti said.

Her office has not hired more staff to handle the extra mail-ins, she said, but has cross-trained other staff to help temporarily.

Meanwhile, the top four Atlantic County towns requesting mail-in ballots are Atlantic City, Egg Harbor Township, Galloway Township and Pleasantville, said Deputy Clerk Michael Somers.

After the polls close at 8 p.m. there will be an hour and a half of intense work tabulating machine results, Somers said. He anticipates the results will be up on the county clerk’s website at atlanticcountyclerk.org by 9:30 p.m.

Your 2019 Press of Atlantic City voter guide

How climate change is affecting Atlantic City

Atlantic City ranks near the top for New Jersey places most impacted by climate change.

A warmer Earth, higher water levels and a lack of financial resources by the city and many of its residents all leave the city increasingly vulnerable.

“All of New Jersey is experiencing warming,” said Dave Robinson, New Jersey’s state climatologist.

But the sea level threat along the coast is particularly alarming in Atlantic City, where levels have increased more than 14 inches over the past century, Robinson said. Flooding events that used to just reach the sidewalk now bring water into the ground floor of an unraised home.

“If an area floods, that really detracts from the value, not to mention the quality of life,” said Elizabeth Terenik, senior project manager for the Atlantic City Development Corp. and the city’s planning and development director from 2014 to 2017.

Atlantic City has seen about eight times more coastal flooding events per year between 2010 and 2015 than in the period between 1950 and 1969, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

That translates from about three coastal flooding events a year to about 24, one of the highest rate increases of any U.S. city, according to the EPA.

Flooding has become so pervasive here that in 2012, the National Weather Service raised the threshold that would prompt a coastal flood advisory, from 6 feet to 6.3 feet, partly due to concerns the warnings were becoming too routine for residents.

Climate Central reports that, within 30 years, 33% of homes in Atlantic City could be inundated with water in a given year.

“Given that Atlantic City is surrounded by water, with numerous structures and roadways very close to sea level, it is certainly one of the more vulnerable areas to flooding,” Robinson said.

The effects are unlikely to be reversed in the near future.

“The only way to overcome climate change is to adapt. You’ll never ever de-carbonize the economy,” said Jim Eberwine, former National Weather Service meteorologist and current emergency management coordinator for Absecon.

How Climate Change is Impacting Atlantic City

But how does a city without resources adapt?

The Baltic Avenue Canal has been one solution. After 50 years of being damaged, the flood mitigation solution came back to life in 2018. Receiving about $13 million in state and federal grant money, it can store flood water and pump it out after coastal flooding has subsided.

Atlantic City historic flood graphic

“That covers about 800 acres, which is about two-thirds of the city,” Terenik said.

While there were many challenges in the city during her time as planning and development director, Terenik reflected on little moments for little cost that helped residents.

“Coordinating with public works to clean out a drain … things like that are rewarding because you impact the quality of life. At the same time, I realize there’s so much more to do,” she said.

But fixing some of those issues will be costly and require help from federal and state agencies. The New Jersey Department of Transportation plans to raise portions of the Black Horse Pike to the tune of $27.5 million, most of it federally funded. Part of that will raise the ramp of the coastal evacuation route that turns onto West End Avenue in the city by up to 2.5 feet. The project is three years away from starting.

“You look at the nuisance flooding events. ... Some people want to move but have no money for it. If you’re going to talk climate change, you’re going to have to be honest about it. Our return so far on what we’ve spent hasn’t been anything,” said Eberwine of the city.

Eberwine recalled a trip he took with the National Guard after Superstorm Sandy to Long Beach Island. A trailer park at the south end of the island was “totally destroyed” by the water and wind, only to be replaced by three-story homes, better protected against flooding.

“If you take just one year of the climate research money, you’re talking about billions of dollars ($11.6 billion in 2014, according to the United States Government Accountability Office),” said Eberwine. “What could you do with that money? How about persons who cannot afford to relocate; give them a choice to move away from the coast or build higher as well.”

Press Meteorologist Joe Martucci's 7-Day Forecast