ELIZABETH, NJ — County manager Edward Oatman did not directly answer questions about the potential closure of the Union County Jail in Elizabeth Thursday, despite pressure from community leaders who spoke on behalf of inmates, employees and their families.

Commissioner Chairman Alexander Mirabella also dismissed a local leader’s assertion made at the commissioners meeting that this possible change would have racist impacts.

Quanae Palmer Chambliss, president of the Rahway Chapter NAACP, and Salaam Ismiall, director of the National United Youth Council in Elizabeth, had asked commissioners in February to let the public know if the jail would be closing. They had heard the jail could be shut down and inmates transported from Union County to Essex County.

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The county closed its Juvenile Detention Center in Linden in 2019 after the average daily population of juveniles at the facility declined by more than 77%, and entered into a five-year agreement with Essex County — where the juveniles at the center were transferred — to provide ongoing juvenile detention services.

This closure was expected to save Union County $24.6 million over three years and impacted 82 county employees.

A resolution on Thursday’s agenda seemed to indicate a similar fate for the Union County Jail. County commissioners approved an amendment to a shared services agreement with Essex County “for the relocation of inmates on an as needed basis at the per diem cost of $98 per inmate per day.”

Palmer Chambliss asked the commissioners to disclose whether and why the jail is being closed and how much the county will save should the facility be shut down.

“Most importantly, what do you plan to do with the money that you save?” asked Chambliss. “Are you going to re-invest it into these communities where the majority of those who offend come from?” 

“There’s nothing on tonight’s agenda about closing the jail, but we are exploring all opportunities to streamline county government, and that includes the jail operations,” Oatman said.

“We’ve met with the union several times to discuss what our potential plans are,” he added, without revealing what those plans are.

“We are working with the union to find employment in other counties in the state for any of their members,” the county manager said.

“Why are you discussing people looking for another job if there’s no plan?” Ismiall asked. He said the plan will have an institutionally racist impact. 

“The fact is that about 90% of the guards are Black and brown folks, and you are making their lives very miserable not knowing what’s going to happen,” he said. Inmates will also be impacted if families are not able to travel to visit them once the pandemic subsides, he said.

Mirabella, the commissioner chairman, said, “I reject Mr. Ismiall’s claim that this is any kind of racist issue in our county.”

Palmer Chambliss and Ismiall shared concerns about a possible effect on the representation inmates would receive from public defenders, who would need to travel outside the county to meet with their clients.

Oatman said he had not heard concerns about public defenders, particularly since meetings are now being conducted online through video in Union and statewide.