Prison report cites problems, but no racism Verbal report uncovers management, morale, and cleanliness issues

A report given to the Freeholder Public Safety Committee last week by a Denver-based consulting company showed that the Hudson County Correctional Facility appears to be relatively free of racism, but has other equally serious problems.

Freeholder Bill O’Dea said the company appears to have done a thorough job in detailing some serious problems at the jail. While O’Dea said many of these problems have existed prior to Corrections Director Oscar Aviles’s taking over three years ago, they have not been solved, possibly due to a lack of proper management.

But the report was skewed by a difference of philosophy between VJRS (the consulting company issuing the report) and the standard employee punishment procedures as dictated by the State of New Jersey.

VJRS said that the existing “progressive punishment” for jail employees, which increases the penalties for workers who continue to violate jail procedures, is counterproductive to the operations of the jail because they frequently remove key people from the jail for long durations, sometimes as long as 120 days, and then can bring them back.

“This company believes that if someone is suspended for more than 30 days, they are no good to the facility and should be fired,” O’Dea said.

The freeholders hired the company to review operations at the Kearny-based facility after a mass protest of workers at a March freeholder meeting claimed racism played a role in hiring and punishment.

While the study seemed to find no merit in this claim, it said morale was a problem, and some of this had to do with the scheduling of workers and the need for upgraded policies and procedures.

“I think punishment may have swung too far back,” O’Dea said. “In the past, management may have been too lax. Now I think it may be too harsh.”

The report found many workers angry, with two unnamed workers claiming they were almost angry enough to “go postal,” a modern euphemism for becoming violent.

“There is a serious morale problem. The management structure is in poor condition,” O’Dea said. “And there seems to be a heavy problem with consistency.”

Dangerous roommates?

One of the conditions leading to discomfort among employees is the apparent lack of evaluation of immigration prisoners as to whether they are violent or not, and the housing of violent and non-violent prisoners together.

“You don’t put a gazelle in a cell with a lion,” said O’Dea, who added that workers at the jail should know what level of violence prisoners might exhibit.

Cleanliness and proper sanitation in living areas was also cited in the report as problematic.

Higher-level officers at the jail have also failed to meet with those in lower ranks, thereby failing to get a full assessment of problems faced, according to the report.

The report made several recommendations on alleviating the matter: hiring an outside monitor, training for employees in direct supervision, and establishing a management system that works.

Violent and non-violent prisoners should be housed separately so that employees know which population they are dealing with, the report said.

Prisoners, at times, have also been allowed to cover windows, which gives inmates the ability to hide the use of contraband and even attempt suicide.

Some praise

While the report was critical of Aviles’ inability to delegate authority, it also praised him for his hard work and his insistence on holding everybody to a higher standard.

“The report, however, says that the structure doesn’t exist there for him to succeed,” O’Dea said.

Freeholder Chairman Jeff Dublin said the freeholders have to develop a plan that would correct the problems.

“I made it clear that I was against 90-day suspensions,” he said.

Freeholder Tilo Rivas said he had a concern about the other problems that emerged as a result of the report.

Freeholder Jose Munoz asked if there is standard policy for housing violent and non-violent prisoners.

Director Aviles said prisoners are categorized by three levels for potential violence – basically one, two, and three. The jail is allowed to house prisoners in categories one and two, or two and three together, but never one and three – meaning the least and most violent.

Munoz, who once was employed at the jail, asked to be assigned to the Public Safety Committee so that he could have more input into the corrective plan.

O’Dea, who sits on the committee, said he would step down from the committee to make room for Munos.

Since this was a verbal report, Dublin said the freeholders will wait on a written report about the jail and then begin formulating a plan to correct the problems. He also said the freeholders will seek a law firm to review past cases of punishment.

A number of lawsuits and complaints have been filed by employees against the Hudson County Department of Corrections, claiming there has been a hostile work environment.

email to Al Sullivan


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