New Jersey's Jailhouse Goldmine: A Moral Obligation to Provide Effective Rehabilitation?

By Christopher Zoukis

Like most municipalities, Cumberland County in southern New Jersey needs to raise its revenues.  Last year it found a very effective way to do just that: fill up its jail.

Jails as For-Profit Businesses

While most of the developed world see institutions like hospitals, universities, and prisons as essential public services, the reality is that they are also businesses.  Patients, students, and prisoners are commodities to be traded.  These men and women are at a vulnerable time in their lives and need the best that the world's richest country can offer them, but instead the institutions charged with their care look to see how they can profit from them.

Cumberland County Jail: Selling Jail Space

In 2013 Gloucester County officials decided to close their jail.  To the south, Cumberland County Jail's population had fallen by almost two hundred over the preceding five years leaving empty beds.  The two counties agreed to a deal, and the first inmates from Gloucester County arrived at Cumberland County Jail, in Bridgeport, in June 2013.  Today there are usually at least a hundred Gloucester County inmates in Cumberland Jail at any given time.

The deal gives Cumberland County $10,000 a day for the first hundred inmates, then $83 a day for each additional one.  For one hundred Gloucester County inmates, Cumberland County stands to make $3.65 million each year.  Indeed, in the first fourteen months they have billed Gloucester County over $4.3 million.

Cumberland Freeholder Director Joseph Derella sees the program as an example of the county developing much needed new sources of revenue.  He believes the program is exceeding expectations and wants to extend it further.

Jail Populations as an Indicator of Success?

In what Cumberland County Jail's Warden Bob Balicki sees as an unintended but beneficial program, the municipal and New Jersey State Police are now locking up around seventy more people a month than they were before the program started, thus boosting the jail population even higher.  Despite all the extra inmates at the jail, Warden Balicki has seen no need for extra staff.

Although many inmates remain in local jails for just a short time, many others can spend a year or more serving sentences or simply waiting out lengthy court proceedings before being sent to state prison.  It's a miserable and anxious time, and being held further away from families and friends means fewer visits, and widens rifts between inmates and those on the outside.

What Jails Should Be Focused On: Education and Rehabilitation

What really counts when offenders are released from jail or prison is the degree to which they have been rehabilitated and whether they will go back to their criminal behaviors or make a fresh, honest start.

County jails are not typically known for their rehabilitative programs.  Education is by far the most effective form of rehabilitation, but although almost 50 percent of jail inmates have neither a high school diploma nor a GED, less than 10 percent receive any basic or secondary education while in jail, a rate 65 percent lower than in state prisons.  This despite the fact that secondary education in prison is associated with a 30 percent reduction in recidivism and can boost employment after release by as much as 50 percent.

Vocational training, through providing offenders with real world skills they can use to find and keep jobs, raises employment by around 30 percent and reduces the likelihood of being sent back to prison by 36 percent.  Yet just 5 percent of jail inmates receive any vocational training, a rate 85 percent lower than in state prisons.

Prison Education and Vocational Training Success Stories

It doesn't have to be this way.  In Georgia's Catoosa County Detention Center Sheriff Gary Sisk has brought together a local technical college and a community literacy group to bring GED classes and laptops to jail inmates.  In Northampton County Prison in Pennsylvania, vocational training is being reintroduced after a comprehensive review of the prison's needs, and in Arizona, Coconino County Jail is hiring a full-time education coordinator.  One Southwestern sheriff is even considering installing a pizza oven in his jail after realizing that since almost every town has at least one pizza restaurant or take-away, there must be plenty of opportunities for those trained to use them.

A Moral Obligation: Fix People, Don't Simply Profit From Their Detention

The influx of Gloucester County's inmates has brought a financial windfall to Cumberland County, but with that comes responsibility.  Those who choose to operate prisons as a revenue stream have an even greater moral responsibility to provide effective rehabilitation programs.  Warden Balicki hasn't yet seen the need to hire any additional staff, but perhaps one or two teachers, vocational trainers, or drug treatment specialists would help balance the needs of the inmates and society with those of the accountants.

Further Reading

To learn more about this developing story, read the Press of Atlantic City article "Accepting Gloucester County inmates pays off for Cumberland.”