County jail conditions — ‘hazardous even to a dog’ — spur calls for independent oversight

Watchdogs warn state inspections of county jails don’t provide true picture of what happens behind bars

By: - January 22, 2024 7:18 am

Fannika Kearney’s fiance has described the conditions at Mercer County Correction Center, where he’s been incarcerated since the fall, as inhumane. He said he has been denied medication and halal food required by his Muslim faith. He has asked to be moved to another jail. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

The water at the Mercer County Correction Center runs brown, if it runs at all. Some days, it’s shut off for hours, forcing the people incarcerated there to forego showers, get drinking water from a garden hose, and wait to use the toilets.

The jail has no laundry, leaving inmates to wear the same unwashed jumpsuits for months or wash their own clothes in mop buckets. Flies and larvae infest the bathrooms, toilets routinely spew raw sewage, and black mold darkens the walls.

The jail’s conditions are “not even fit for animal livestock,” an inmate wrote in a federal civil rights complaint he and about 10 other inmates filed against the county in 2022.

Yet state inspectors deemed the facility, which dates back to 1892 and overlooks the Delaware River south of Lambertville, fully in compliance when they inspected the jail over several visits last January.

“You and your staff are congratulated on this achievement and are to be commended for the efforts made in preparation for this inspection,” state Department of Corrections deputy commissioner Erin Nardelli wrote in February to the jail’s longtime warden, Charles Ellis.

Most of New Jersey’s county jails were similarly lauded by state inspectors, despite well-documented failures that have resulted in lawsuits, civil rights investigations, and the arrests and discipline of correctional staff.

New Jersey has a corrections ombudsperson to address concerns that arise behind bars and recommend systemic reforms — but only in state prisons. Most county jails in New Jersey and nationally, including Mercer County, have inadequate or no oversight to ensure operations are transparent, conditions are humane, and problems get fixed, watchdogs say.

That’s especially concerning considering more people cycle in and out of county jails than state prisons — and most are pre-trial detainees who are legally presumed innocent, said Michele Deitch, director of the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab and the National Resource Center for Correctional Oversight at the University of Texas at Austin. About 73% of those incarcerated in Mercer’s jail in 2022 were pre-trial, according to its 2023 inspection report.

“Conditions inside these facilities are, in many places, very, very problematic,” Deitch said. “These are places that have total control over the lives and wellbeing of people inside. You need transparency and routine monitoring of conditions, in order to ensure people’s safety.”

Mercer jail’s decrepit conditions have long been an open secret in New Jersey’s capital county, where officials in 2016 proposed closing the antiquated facility and shipping its inmates to Hudson County. The plan fell apart amid union concerns about job loss and a lawsuit over how a move might reduce inmates’ access to lawyers and loved ones.

Crystal Bell, pictured with her fiance, Kevin Jackson, is fighting to get him transferred to another jail. (Photo courtesy of Crystal Bell)

Conditions have only worsened since then, incarcerated people and their families say.

“Fresh water and air is the bare minimum you can give to a human,” said Crystal Bell, whose fiance, Kevin Jackson, has been incarcerated at Mercer since October. “But this is a forgotten place that nobody seems to care about, so nobody holds these officials accountable.”

Focus on regulations, not human rights

Twenty-eight states have some kind of oversight of their county jails, Deitch said. That includes New Jersey, where more than 10,000 people are behind bars in 16 county jails on any given day.

But in most of those states, the oversight is purely regulatory, she added.

“The standards themselves tend to be extremely weak and minimal and vague and have huge gaps, and really the only function of that kind of oversight is to assess compliance with the standard,” Deitch said. “They’re not looking for systemic issues. There’s not a human rights focus. Instead, they tend to be much more technical: Are there this number of square feet in a unit and are they getting this many hours of that?”

That’s pretty much what happens in New Jersey, too. The state Department of Corrections inspects county jails annually and issues reports that typically run over 140 pages. They’re almost entirely checklists and fill-in-the-blank forms focused on whether facilities comply with various regulations.

They run up to a year behind. Inspections conducted last year examined regulatory compliance in the 2022 calendar year. Two of the jails inspected don’t even operate anymore; Passaic and Union counties now house inmates in other counties.

State inspectors last year declared 11 county jails fully in compliance, while six were ordered to correct areas of non-compliance:

  • The Atlantic County Justice Facility housed people in dayrooms, triple-bunked inmates, and had observation and single-occupancy cells only in the medical unit, in violation of regulations. Inspectors noted the changes were due to staffing shortages. Mercer County jail also triple-bunked inmates because of a staffing shortage, but did so under a rule exemption state Department of Corrections Commissioner Victoria Kuhn approved, inspectors said.
  • The Burlington County Detention Center had no teacher and so didn’t provide educational or vocational programs. Inspectors also found documentation that staff handcuffed a pregnant inmate while transporting her, in violation of regulations. (A lawsuit filed by a Middlesex County inmate handcuffed throughout her pregnancy ended in a $750,000 settlement in 2022.)
  • The Cumberland County Jail racked up the most non-compliances. Inspectors found the facility failed to train staff in what to do during and after a riot, did not employ a teacher after June 2022 and so offered no educational programs, failed to complete required monthly classification reviews of inmates in protective custody, and failed to verify required daily staff checks of bars, doors, windows, and more in disciplinary detention.
  • The Essex County Correctional Facility was found to be in non-compliance with a regulation that requires inmate welfare funds to be used on recreation equipment, books, movies, the law library, and other things that benefit inmates; instead, those funds were spent on individual Lexis-Nexis accounts for custody staff and maintenance and supplies for the washing machines.
  • Staff at the Hudson County Correctional Facility violated the state Dignity for Incarcerated Primary Caretaker Parents Act by failing to provide parenting classes and trauma-informed care. They also opened, inspected, and copied inmates’ legal mail, in violation of regulations that allow them to open such mail only to check for contraband.
  • The Somerset County Jail was flagged for failing to document 15-minute checks of incarcerated people on “close watch” for suicide risk or medical issues. The jail reported one suicide and five attempted suicides in 2022, out of a total of seven suicides and 106 attempts documented at all county lockups that year. Jail suicides have prompted federal investigations and multi-million-dollar payouts in other counties, including Ocean and Cumberland. Inspectors also declared Somerset’s housing units “not clean” because they had “excessive trash” and found the facility failed to offer parenting classes, in violation of the state Dignity Act.

The inspections were done by four employees from the state Department of Corrections’ county services office. A department spokeswoman did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

County oversight — or regionalization?

Critics say the state inspections fail to give a true picture of what’s happening behind bars.

They don’t measure things that could uncover trends that are ripe for reform, like how many detainees are held for misdemeanors or low-level, nonviolent offenses, how long they’re held, and how many are incarcerated because they can’t afford fines and fees or committed a technical parole violation, like failing a drug test or missing curfew or a required check-in.

The inspections don’t include inmate demographics that would reveal disparities or disciplinary data to show how officers’ and inmates’ infractions are handled. Inspectors don’t examine quality-of-life metrics like utility outages or things that could ensure jails serve as more than holding pens, such as how many detainees have addiction histories or mental health disorders or how many participate in educational programs. Shortcomings in those areas have fueled costly lawsuits against jails and prisons in New Jersey.

It’s also unclear how the state ensures the accuracy of data county jail officials report. In a federal civil rights lawsuit filed this month, relatives of a woman who fatally overdosed in Monmouth County’s jail in 2022 accused jail officials of failing to report another in-custody death to the state as required because the man died in a hospital a few days after overdosing in jail on drugs he got there.

“Counties are their own fiefdoms,” said Bonnie Kerness of the American Friends Service Committee’s New Jersey Prison Watch Program. “There is nobody to complain to when there are problems in the county jails, no logical chain of command to accept complaints and do something about it. So then there’s no one looking at the financing to see if these jails need to be combined, or looking for ways to diminish the pre-trial populations so that this is not economic hostage of poor people.”

Counties should welcome oversight, because resulting reforms could save them money in the long run, Deitch said.

“If we can have preventive oversight, you’re going to stave off lawsuits and prevent injuries and deaths. By preventing harm, you’re saving money, and you’re saving lives,” Deitch said.

Terry Schuster, the state corrections ombudsperson, said jails should have oversight by people outside of law enforcement and county government who are tasked with speaking with incarcerated people, observing jail conditions firsthand, and investigating concerns, so that problems can be addressed before they escalate.

Such independent oversight would help build trust and transparency in the justice system, Schuster said.

“It can clear up misinformation,” he said. “And it can provide accountability for a part of local government that exercises an extraordinary amount of power over New Jersey residents.”

But only if it’s done well, civil rights advocates say.

Essex County officials created a civilian task force in 2019 to oversee the jail, which has a long history of abuses. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, though, has panned its performance, saying it hasn’t operated independently or transparently.

John Donnadio heads the New Jersey Association of Counties. He welcomed independent oversight, so long as such boards aren’t a state mandate and county officials set the rules.

But beyond that, he regards regionalization as the key to improving jail conditions.

Many county jails have struggled with staffing shortages, decaying infrastructure, and shrinking populations due to decarceration policies lawmakers have adopted over the past decade, he said. Such trends have driven some county jails — including in Gloucester, HunterdonPassaicSussex, and Union counties — to close or consolidate in recent years, with more including Somerset and Cumberland counties considering closure.

“Regionalization, if you can provide those services effectively, efficiently, and safely, I think that’s the answer,” Donnadio said.

Eugene Caldwell, president of the New Jersey County Jail Wardens Association, declined to comment about calls to consolidate jails and strengthen oversight.

“Our county jails are inspected annually by the state DOC, so the county jails already have state DOC oversight,” he said.

The Mercer County Correction Center, built in 1896, sits hidden on a hill overlooking the Delaware River just outside Lambertville. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

Plans for Mercer

In Mercer, Bell has repeatedly asked Mercer County and jail officials to conduct a new inspection with different inspectors and relocate her fiance to a different jail.

“I don’t understand how that inspector passed it,” Bell said. “The inmates are saying it’s to the point where the guards wear gloves and masks when they’re on the tier. It’s that bad.”

Fannika Kearney of Trenton has joined Bell’s crusade. Her fiance, Jermaine Bailey, has been incarcerated at Mercer for about three months.

“They treat them like animals. They are in jail but still they’re entitled to a certain level of respect and dignity,” Kearney said. “He would take a plea just to get out of that place.”

Locals still call the jail “the workhouse” because of its origins as a work camp, even though officials have long abandoned its labor roots and the jail has no work-release program. A dilapidated, weed-choked building once used to crush stones from a quarry where inmates worked still stands at the foot of the jail’s driveway.

Critics say the jail’s problems go beyond its deteriorating physical conditions.

Medications and doctor’s visits are frequently denied or delayed, and the phones are often down, so inmates can’t communicate with loved ones, Bailey said in a letter to jail officials requesting a transfer. Bathrooms sometimes have no toilet paper or soap, and the jail is cold, Bailey wrote. Inmates sometimes go without meals, and staff refuse to accommodate the dietary restrictions his Muslim faith requires, Kearney said.

“The sergeant talks to us like we’re nothing,” Bailey wrote. “The sergeant told me that if it’s not life or death, he not giving me my meds.”

Assaults are commonplace, and complaints go unheeded or result in retaliation, Bell and Kearney said.

The federal lawsuit an inmate filed in March 2022 gave a peek into conditions inside, but resulted in no change because a federal judge dismissed it in August, citing various filing shortcomings.

“Officials know this county facility is unsafe and hazardous even to a dog,” Calvin Stevens wrote in that complaint.

(Excerpt from 2022 federal civil rights complaint against Mercer County for jail conditions)

Ellis, the warden who has worked at the jail since 2008, referred the New Jersey Monitor’s questions to county spokesman Theo Siggelakis. He refused the New Jersey Monitor’s request to visit the jail, citing security reasons, and referred questions to Dan Benson, who took over as Mercer County executive this month.

Benson said he has long been concerned about conditions at the jail, which he toured about 15 years ago when he was a county freeholder.

“Listen, jail is not meant to be a place that’s pleasant,” Benson said. “But at that time, a lot of our concerns were actually about safety issues, both for inmates and for workers. There were cameras that had been purchased by the commissioners that were not being installed. And so through a lot of pressure, we were able to get those installed back then.”

Benson left county politics in early 2011 to serve in the state Assembly for 12 years. Now back at the county, he said the jail is one of his priorities. He plans to tour it again soon and hopefully have a battle plan in place by the spring.

Dan Benson, the new Mercer County executive, served in the New Jersey Assembly until this year. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

He doesn’t think the county can afford to build a new jail or transfer Mercer defendants to another county’s jail. Repair is the likely answer, even though funding will be an obstacle, he said.

“I want to bring in someone to look at the current state of the jail and get a price tag of what it’s going to cost to bring it up to a level of standard of care that we can find acceptable, given all the challenges that are there,” he said.

Bell fears that will be too late for her fiance. His exposure to mold, asbestos, and other jail conditions has changed his voice and given his skin a gray pallor, she said.

“He has constant headaches because he’s dehydrated. He has this raspy cough he didn’t have before. It literally breaks my heart. Being exposed to that mold and asbestos might not even show up right away. We’re wondering if one day he might pop up with some weird lung condition,” Bell said. “Is he still gonna be him when he comes out?”

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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.

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