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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

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Union Questions Staff Levels, Training at New Jail

File photo shows a section

By Bill Barlow

CREST HAVEN – The president of the union representing corrections officers at the Cape May County Correctional Facility has raised concerns over staffing and safety at the new facility.
Inmates were moved to the $37-million building next to the former jail Jan. 12.
“The new facility was opened despite what we, the Fraternal Order of Police  Lodge 7 (FOP), have identified as manpower and safety concerns,” reads a statement from Thomas Martino, the president of the local FOP. He alleged that corrections officers did not receive enough training in the rush to open the new jail.
“That’s not true,” responded Sheriff Robert “Bob” Nolan, who said officers received extensive training before moving to the new jail and that he is confident that the staffing levels are sufficient.
“I wonder how much of this is a legitimate concern and how much is a tactic for labor negotiations,” Nolan said.
The FOP is negotiating a new contract, he said, suggesting that the controversy is aimed at getting a better deal.
“I’m not saying it’s malicious,” Nolan said. “I’m saying that it’s misinformed.”
The Sheriff’s Office is responsible for the county jail, for security at the Superior Court, policing the county parks and other duties. The office includes a civil division, a law enforcement division, which includes the county K-9 unit, courts and other duties, and the correction division, which handles the jail.
There are some exceptions, Nolan said, but for the most part, the FOP Lodge 7 represents the corrections officers and sergeants at the jail while those in the law enforcement division are represented by the Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local 59.
Nolan said he has an adversarial relationship with Martino, pointing out that he supported Nolan’s opponent in the last election. ‘Richard Harron for Sheriff’ posts remain on the FOP’s Facebook page, supporting the Democratic candidate Nolan ran against for his job in 2017. Nolan said he and Martino are cordial, “but he’s certainly not checking his facts before sending out these statements to the media.”
In his statement, Martino argues that it is the county and Nolan who are not facing facts. He said the Lodge looked at the staffing and training needed for the new jail, which uses a system known as direct supervision. They recommended additional personnel would be needed to staff posts at the new jail.
“Additionally, the new study was provided to Sheriff Nolan and county officials. We were advised the county disagreed with the results of our study,” the FOP statement reads.
Martino said the FOP acknowledged the need to staff the new facility but said they are concerned with what he called the lack of training for all officers and sergeants.
“The level of training required to effectively staff the new facility has been ignored in the rush to move into the new facility. It’s not good enough to say, ‘We will wing it.’ But that is what’s being done,” he wrote. Martino said he would welcome a chance to “open a dialogue” with Nolan.
In a recent phone interview, Nolan said it was Martino and the FOP that has been difficult to speak with, saying they’ve missed meetings on safety and negotiations. Nolan said all officers received 10 hours of training in the new building in September, with a four-hour refresher in January, plus extensive training films were made available. Most of the training is in the “direct supervision” system put in place in the new jail.
As Nolan explained it, rather than have the cells lined along a corridor, they are spread around an open space like a horseshoe, where a single corrections officer at a control booth can see all of the cells. Each of the five sections, or pods, in the new jail can house 64 inmates, with 32 on the first level and 32 more on the second level. The former jail was often over capacity. The new jail can house a total of 320, with a current population of about 180, Nolan said.
The direct supervision system classifies the inmates as minimum security or in progressively more stringent units, Nolan said, based on their behavior. At minimum security, he said, inmates have far more freedom, including access to the recreation area that includes a basketball court and access to screens allowing communication with family.
According to Nolan, studies have shown there are fewer attacks on corrections officers and less violence among inmates under the system. The FOP argues the system will require more staff than is planned and said that numerous staff members left in 2018.
“This was the situation in the old jail and will carry over to the new jail,” reads the FOP statement. “The constant shortage of staff and the need to fill vacancies leads to fatigue and personnel leaving. Over the last 10 years, more than 89 officers have left the department. FOP Lodge 7 strongly recommends the sheriff revisit staffing levels in the new facility.”
Nolan responded that after two weeks the FOP could not possibly know that the new system is leading to fatigue or other problems.
“I am comfortable at this time that we have sufficient staff to provide for the safety of the correctional officers and the inmates at that institution,” Nolan said.
The department has exactly the amount of people to run that jail, he said, adding later that he would continue to look into the matter. “If we find that we need more manpower, I’ll approach the board of freeholders with that request.”
There are 89 corrections officers employed by the county, Nolan said.
To contact Bill Barlow, email bbarlow@cmcherald.com.

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