The federal government says the Cumberland County jail is in violation of the constitutional amendment prohibiting "cruel and unusual" punishment because it failed to take action to prevent suicides among inmates suffering from drug addiction.

From 2014 to 2018, seven inmates took their own lives.

The report by the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey concluded that the jail in Bridgeton did not properly provide mental health treatment for inmates at risk of self harm and suicide.

Federal officials said this violated the 8th Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, as well as the 14th Amendment's protection of due process and equal protection.

The Justice Department concluded that inmates faced a heightened risk of self-harm and suicide due to the jail’s failure to provide medication-assisted treatment, where clinically indicated, to inmates experiencing unmedicated opiate withdrawal.

State Sen. Michael Testa, a Republican, called the report another "black eye" for Democratic Cumberland County Board of Commissioners Director Joe Derella, who is responsible for appointing the director of the prison.

Testa cited problems with coronavirus outbreaks and the jail's release of an ICE fugitive  who was charged with raping a girl.

"The prisoners and guards were not kept safe from COVID, local residents have not been protected, and now this. It is yet another example of disregard for human life. Constitutionally mandated safeguards to protect the lives of prisoners have been neglected. This is indefensible,” Testa said.

Acting U.S. Attorney Rachael A. Honig said there is some hope at the prison for improvements.

"We have been encouraged by the cooperation of Cumberland County Jail officials throughout our investigation, and their stated commitment to ensure the safety and constitutional rights of their inmates. We look forward to continuing to work with them to resolve these significant concerns," Honig said in a written statement.

Honig said the prison recently began providing medication-assisted treatment to inmates experiencing opiate withdrawal. However, continued funding of the program is not clear.

Derella, in response to the report, said the prison has substantially increased its professional resources for identifying and treating mental health issues since it began working with the Department of Justice in 2017, noting there has only been one suicide since 2018.

He said that detainees who in the past may have been held at Ancora Psychiatric Hospital are now housed at the prison.

"Since 2018, jail administration has revised its policies and procedures to improve identification on intake of detainees who are suffering from mental illness or addiction, putting them at greater risk of suicide," Derella said. "Once detainees are identified at risk, enhanced psychiatric and recovery services are immediately employed to help the detainee."

Derella did not have a response to Testa's comments late Friday afternoon.

Contact reporter Dan Alexander at Dan.Alexander@townsquaremedia.com or via Twitter @DanAlexanderNJ

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