ELIZABETH, NJ — County officials confirmed the prior suspicions of community leaders at Thursday’s Board of Commissioners meeting: the Union County jail in Elizabeth will close and inmates will be transferred to the Essex County Correctional facility in Newark.
The county is entering into a five-year memorandum with Essex County, which has an option for renewal. This merger will save the county $103 million over five years, according to a county press release.
The number of prisoners housed at the jail has fallen nearly 67% over the past 10 years, from more than 1,000 prisoners to currently 345, county officials said of the reasoning behind the decision. Similar factors had led to the closing of the county’s Juvenile Detention Center in Linden in 2019.
Union County will end the long-term housing of inmates in the Elizabeth facility on July 1. After inmates are transferred, the current county jail building will be used as a hub to intake, process, temporarily detain and transport prisoners to the Essex County Correctional facility, officials said.
“The county will save approximately $20 million a year with this agreement,” said County Manager Edward Oatman at the meeting. “We are cognizant of the fact that this might inconvenience some people, so we will provide a shuttle service for anybody who needs help getting to Newark to visit their loved ones.”
Oatman said the county has been working with unions to find jobs at other locations for the 243 people working at the jail, including corrections officers and civilian staff members.
The county’s press release said that about 53 corrections officers and civilians will remain employed at the Elizabeth jail for its year-round hub operations.
In Facebook comments under a live stream of the meeting, however, residents said that employees of the jail were left to find jobs themselves.
County officials cited the impact of the state’s criminal justice reform laws and declining crime rates on the reduced population of inmates at the jail.
At Board of Commissioners meetings in February and March, National United Youth Council Director Salaam Ismiall and Rahway Chapter NAACP President Quanae Palmer Chambliss asked for public hearings before the decision was made, but officials responded with vague statements.
TAPinto was not able to reach Palmer Chambliss for her response to this most recent news, but TAPinto Rahway had secured a statement from her prior to this. It reads, "While the NAACP Rahway Branch acknowledges that bail reform has reduced the numbers of the accused awaiting trial in the Union County Jail system, we also know the conversation surrounding the closing of the facility is not new. It predates bail reform."
"[W]e are concerned about how it [jail closing] would effect [sic] due process for the accused. We understand, due to the pandemic, meetings between the accused and their representatives are by Zoom, [but] the pandemic will not last always," she said. "There will come a time where public offenders will need to meet with their clients in person."
"We are also concerned," she went on, "that this move would negatively and disproportionately impact African Americans, Black and, Latinx populations both in the system and employees of the facility."
On Thursday, Garwood resident Bruce Paterson said the jail merger item was added to the agenda at noon on the date of the meeting — too late for concerned members of the public to comment.
Approval of the jail closure came on the same night the commissioners held a public hearing on and approved the county's annual budget, which officials said supports COVID-19 vaccination and testing efforts while keeping the tax increase at “zero percent.”
County spokesman Sebastian D’Elia said the county has not decided on how it will use the funds it is set to save with the jail merger.
“The budget is a fluid thing, so we don’t know what will happen from one year to the next,” D’Elia said.
Watch the Thursday, April 22, Union County Board of Commissioner's meeting: