Toilet troubles at South Jersey state prison prompt protest

Faith leaders demand probe after water outage created ‘inhumane’ conditions

By: - February 9, 2023 4:46 pm

James Brown is a formerly incarcerated person from Paterson who founded the faith-based reentry group From Street to Christ. He protested at the New Jersey Department of Corrections’ headquarters in Trenton on Feb. 9, 2023, against conditions at South Woods State Prison and in solidarity with people incarcerated there. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

When a water main broke last month at the South Woods State Prison, officials brought in port-a-potties, enlisted the fire department to fill hundreds of buckets with water, and opened up gym bathrooms to ensure the 3,200 inmates and hundreds of staff could still relieve themselves until repairs were made.

But it wasn’t enough. Left with no working toilets and too few port-a-potties for over two days, incarcerated people reported they were told to relieve themselves in bags and bottles — and did so, out of desperation. The system didn’t get the all-clear until five days after the water main first broke.

The issue sparked so many cries for help from those inside the mixed-custody prison in Cumberland County that a few dozen faith leaders and other prison justice advocates protested Thursday morning outside South Woods and at the state Department of Corrections’ Trenton headquarters to demand an investigation and improvements to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

“For over three weeks, we are getting stories that people have had inconsistent clean water. We are getting stories that people have been forced to urinate in water bottles. We are getting stories that people have been defecating in plastic bags. Why? Because the Department of Corrections decided to give them limited access to port-a-potties,” said Charlene Walker, executive director of Faith in New Jersey. “This is cruel! This is not how we treat human beings!”

A state corrections spokeswoman called the protesters’ characterization of what happened “incorrect information” and “rumors.” Incarcerated people were not instructed to use bags or bottles to relieve themselves, and port-a-potties were stationed outside their housing units, spokeswoman Amy Z. Quinn said.

The water main break itself, which occurred Jan. 18, didn’t affect the 26-year-old facility, Quinn said. But water had to be shut off the next day for emergency repairs and remained off for 28 hours, from noon Jan. 19 to 4 p.m. Jan. 20, with facility toilets and showers available for use after that time, she said.

“NJDOC personnel responded quickly, and incarcerated persons and staff were provided with bottled water for drinking and hygiene, and portable toilets were brought in for use,” she said. “At all times during this incident, incarcerated persons and staff had access to adequate drinking water.”

Restrictions weren’t fully lifted and normal service didn’t resume until Jan. 23, Quinn said. An independent contractor tested the water and declared it safe to drink on Jan. 24, she added.

Protesters said incarcerated people reported two and a half days of no or inadequate toilet access. Even once water was restored, it was discolored for some time, leaving many leery of using it.

About 20 people protested the New Jersey Department of Corrections headquarters in Trenton to call attention to conditions at South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton, Cumberland County. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

James Brown is a formerly incarcerated person from Paterson who founded the faith-based reentry group From Street to Christ. He joined the protest in Trenton in solidarity with those still behind bars.

“Why am I here? To be a voice for the voiceless. I stand for those who can’t stand for themselves today because I was there. I’m here because my faith tells me to remember the prisoner as though you were there yourself, remember those who are mistreated as if you felt that pain for yourself,” Brown said. “Where is the officer using the bathroom? Where is the administration using the bathroom? This is inhumane, and it must stop. Somebody must be held accountable for it.”

Lawmakers received complaints from prison staff, too. Sen. Ed Durr (R-Gloucester) said he and Sen. Michael Testa Jr. (R-Cumberland) plan to tour the prison Friday to learn more about what happened and how they can help.

Terry Schuster, the state corrections ombudsperson, said his office fielded about 35 pleas for help from people incarcerated at South Woods about the water main break and resulting problems.

“Because more than 3,000 people are held in custody at South Woods State Prison, a water main break immediately makes thousands of people reliant on prison staff to meet their basic human needs — water to drink and a place to go to the bathroom,” Schuster said.

Crisis response is rarely perfect, he said, adding that corrections officials, the local fire department, and others deserve credit for quickly responding to a tough situation.

Still, he said he hopes officials learn from the incident.

“The goal now is distilling lessons for the next emergency, and involving staff and incarcerated people in that discussion,” Schuster said.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.