N.J. jail warden resigns before hearing on unsanitary conditions, COVID protocols

The warden's "resignation is the latest installment of proof that the county jail is off-the-rails,” said the COs' union president


By Bill Duhart
nj.com
        
BRIDGETON, N.J. — Cumberland County Jail Warden Charles Warren resigned before a federal court hearing Monday in which a judge had threatened to impose fines if the county continued to “ignore my orders” to correct health and safety protocols for COVID-19.

Warren’s resignation was confirmed by the county late Monday afternoon with a statement. It said it had accepted his resignation and had appointed Stanley Field, its chief information security officer and a retired state police captain, interim jail operations director.

“We will be conducting a national search for a warden with substantial corrections management experience which we project will take approximately 6-8 weeks,” county Commission Director Joseph Derella said in the statement.

The county's attorney said last week that COs at the Cumberland County Jail were refusing to comply with cleaning protocols.
The county's attorney said last week that COs at the Cumberland County Jail were refusing to comply with cleaning protocols. (Google Maps)

The county had planned to spend $65 million to replace the jail with a new facility, but nixed those plans due to both the state elimination of cash bail and efforts to combat COVID-19 last year, which led to more prisoners being released before facing trial. Instead, the jail was scheduled to close last November and the county planned to pay neighboring counties to house the remaining prisoners in their jails. But lawsuits from the county correction officers' union and the state public defender’s office delayed the action.

The matter is now before the state Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, a lawsuit filed in June by inmates at the jail claimed they were denied masks and other safeguards against COVID-19 while being held in unsanitary close quarters in dormitory settings of multiple bunk beds in a cell. Those complaints led to a settlement in which the county promised to maintain a cleaner facility and document regular cleanings and supplies.

Federal District Judge Noel Hillman peppered Gregg Zeff, a county attorney, and Warren with questions last week about what he felt was a lack of compliance and said he intended to levy fines of up to $10,000 for some violations and a daily fine of $1,000 if the county failed to comply.

“There’s a pattern and practice by the county in this case to ignore my orders, to make excuses, to blame somebody else,” said Hillman, according to a transcript. “I’m prepared to impose a fine and move to more severe sanctions on an escalating basis and even move this to criminal contempt for any line officer, any supervisor, any administrator, any warden, any county commissioner, all the way up to the top. My orders have to be complied with... And it’s already clear to me that the county doesn’t care.”

Hillman agreed to allow the county until Monday to show it had complied with his orders before imposing fines. Jeffrey Pollock, an attorney for the detainees, said Monday Hillman sealed the court proceeding after the announcement of Warren’s resignation and instructed the lawyers not to publicly discuss the session.

“I can not report regarding the word for word because it is under seal,” Pollock told NJ Advance Media on Monday. “What I can tell you generally, the warden has resigned as of midnight [Sunday].”

Pollock said the judge said the hearings are going to continue either this week or next.

Gregg Zeff, an attorney representing the county in the case, did not respond to a request for comment Monday. He did respond with an email Friday on the court proceeding last week.

“The staffing challenges at the jail are making it difficult to implement all necessary policy and procedures, including those that are court mandated, as soon as we would like,” Zeff told NJ Advance Media in a statement.

Zeff told Judge Hillman in the hearing last week that corrections officers who were supposed to log the cleaning schedule and supplies have refused to do it, according to a court transcript. He said when the county tried to discipline the officers their union called it retaliation and protested.

“Suggesting somehow that our officers have anything to do with the county’s lackluster efforts to comply with the judge’s order is laughable,” PBA Local 231 President Victor Bermudez said in a statement. “Warren’s resignation is the latest installment of proof that the county jail is off-the-rails.”

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