NJ county to close most of its jail, send inmates to nearby facility

The move will save Union County more than $103M over five years

By Noah Cohen
ELIZABETH, N.J. — Union County will close most operations at its county jail, eliminate its corrections department and house inmates at the Essex County jail in a cost-saving move, officials said Thursday.

Under the agreement effective July 1, Union County will save more than $103 million over five years, according to county officials. The jail, located in Elizabeth, will remain open as a hub to intake, process and temporarily detain people before they are transferred to the Essex County Correctional Facility, roughly a 20-minute drive away in Newark.

In a statement, Union County officials said the decision was in response to a nearly 67% drop in inmates housed at its facility over the past decade. The county jail population has declined from more than 1,000 to 345, according to the county.

Members from PBA Local 199 Union County Corrections hang their banner on the front of a bus at a rally for COs in nearby Cumberland County, who were facing a similar proposal, with accompanying layoffs, last year.
Members from PBA Local 199 Union County Corrections hang their banner on the front of a bus at a rally for COs in nearby Cumberland County, who were facing a similar proposal, with accompanying layoffs, last year. (NJ Advance Media/Al Amrhein)

“The number of inmates at the jail (has) continued to dramatically decline. As a result of this and other factors, detention costs per inmate have more than doubled during the same time,” Union County Manager Edward T. Oatman said. “Our savings will be substantial.”

The county’s Department of Corrections will become a division of the Union County Sheriff’s Office, officials said. The current jail is staffed by 243 employees - corrections officers and civilian employees, according to the county, which said 53 officers and civilians will remain employed at the Elizabeth hub facility.

Union County provided employment services to other jail employees, including job training, resume help, education, job fairs and other employment programs, the county said.

“Ultimately, this was a tough decision, but one that had to be made,” Union County Board of Commissioners’ Chairman Alexander Mirabella said in a statement. “This agreement will save the County tens of millions in taxpayers’ dollars, and provide responsible detention for our inmates.”

Essex County officials hailed the agreement as a boost for the county’s revenue and taxpayers.

Under the five year agreement, Essex County planned to house an average daily population of 300 inmates from Union County at its Doremus Avenue jail, according to officials. Union County will pay a daily rate of $104 per person.

Essex County could see about $11.3 million in revenue annually, according to county officials.

“All levels of government are facing tremendous fiscal pressures and it’s imperative that we all look for ways to pool resources, reduce expenses and generate new revenue while providing the same high quality of service to our constituents,” Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo, Jr. said in a statement.

“I want to thank Governor Phil Murphy for supporting this bi-county agreement and our partners from Union County who worked with us to reach an agreement that truly benefits the taxpayers of both of our counties,” DiVincenzo said.

New Jersey’s widespread shift away from cash bail was also cited as a force driving down inmate populations at county jails, which largely house people awaiting trial or serving short sentences.

“The bail reform policies enacted by New Jersey before the pandemic resulted in fewer people being held at county correctional facilities,” DiVincenzo added. “This partnership is a great opportunity for Union County to find an alternative way to house their inmates without having to operate a costly facility and for Essex County to maximize the capacity of our accredited complex and generate additional revenue.”

Essex County Board of Commissioners President Wayne Richardson said he supported the agreement with Union County.

“As changing conditions result in a smaller population of inmates, it only makes sense for counties to work together to ensure both fiscal and social responsibility,” Richardson added. “The proposed agreement will assist both counties financially and allow Union County’s inmates a facility in a neighboring county where the hardship to visiting families will be minimized and access to attorneys will not be compromised.”

The agreement also called for Essex County to provide video conference booths for Union County to conduct remote hearings and interviews with inmates, according to officials. Union County also will handle transportation for its prisoners to court and offer shuttle buses for visitors to Newark.

Essex County has inked similar deals with other jurisdictions. Some federal defendants are held at the Essex County Correctional Facility under a deal with the U.S. Marshals Service along with inmates from Gloucester County. Essex also holds immigration detainees for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Passaic, Union and Hudson counties also send juveniles to the Essex County Juvenile Detention Center in Newark. Union County in 2019 closed its juvenile detention center, bringing $24.6 million a year in savings, officials said.

Union County has long considered closing its adult jail. In 2014, a top union official said the county was in talks to send its inmates to Hudson County. In South Jersey, officials closed the Gloucester County jail and moved inmates to other counties, also in a cost-cutting measure.

Representatives for the Union County corrections officers union could not be immediately reached to comment Thursday night. A county spokesman said he did not have more details on how many staffers were left without jobs.

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