City eyes North Jersey jail to ease jam here

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A view of the Passaic County Jail in Paterson, N.J., where conditions are said to be "shameful."

Two weeks after civil-rights attorneys filed a class-action lawsuit over Philadelphia's jammed, junky jails, city officials have one potential solution in the works: Transfer inmates to a jammed, junky jail 100 miles away.

City officials are negotiating with the Passaic County Jail in Paterson, N.J., to house more than 200 inmates as soon as June 1.

Michael Resnick, the city's legal counsel for public safety, said that the Paterson facility is one of "two or three" institutions that Philadelphia officials are negotiating with to alleviate crowding here. Philadelphia now houses about 400 of its 9,300 inmates in prisons outside the city, including in Monmouth County, N.J., prisons spokesman Robert Eskind said.

The Paterson jail has a scandalous past: Citing "shameful" conditions, a federal judge began reducing inmates' sentences there last year. Abuse allegations had prompted federal immigration officials to yank detainees from the jail in 2005, and U.S. marshals quit placing inmates there last year.

The jail also grapples with the same crowding problems that plague Philadelphia prisons. Built for about 900 inmates, the jail's inmate count this week was nearly 1,400, according to the Herald-News of Passaic County.

Bill Maer, a spokesman for the Passaic County Sheriff's Department, which runs the jail, didn't return phone calls yesterday from the Daily News. But he told the Herald-News that jail officials are working to improve conditions in the 50-year-old building.

In Philadelphia, jails are so crowded that up to 3,000 inmates live three-to-a-cell in two-bunk cells. In such cells, the third inmate's sleeping quarters are a plastic shell on the floor next to the commode.

Such crowding prompted civil-rights attorneys David Rudovsky and Jonathan Feinberg to sue last month over "unconstitutional" prison conditions that, they charged, jeopardize medical care and other basic needs.

Moving inmates to Passaic County would essentially be trading one "dungeon" for another, Rudovsky said yesterday.

"It is extremely disturbing that the city of Philadelphia would even consider moving inmates to a prison that has been condemned by federal authorities in New Jersey as so deficient in protecting basic human rights that the federal government has pulled all their inmates out of there," Rudovsky said.

Rudovsky and other prisoners' advocates say shipping inmates out of Philadelphia is the wrong way to alleviate overcrowding.

"It takes them away from their families, they're not getting the [rehabilitative] programming they would get in-state and it's costing us through the nose to pay for this," said Bill DiMascio, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society. "It makes no sense at all."

Incarceration costs average nearly $91 per day, per inmate in Philadelphia, Eskind said. Passaic County Jail officials aim to collect $88 a day for each Philly inmate, with hopes of boosting county coffers by $5 million a year, according to the Herald News.

Resnick said that such projections are premature.

"We don't have a contract yet," he said. "We're talking to them, but we're talking to other entities as well." He declined to specify those other entities.

Any contract would include provisions for a full-time monitor from Philadelphia to ensure adequate treatment of the Philly inmates, Resnick said.

Philadelphia officials have visited the Paterson jail, occasionally unannounced, to inspect conditions, and found nothing objectionable, Resnick added.

But Rudovsky and DiMascio said that city officials should explore alternative punishments for inmates, especially nonviolent offenders, to ease crowding, Rudovsky and DiMascio said.

"We have convinced ourselves that the only way to deal with these folks is to throw them in jail if they break the law," DiMascio said.

"With people who commit dangerous, violent crimes, you've got to incapacitate them [via incarceration].

"But we have flooded our prisons with people who can be sanctioned in other ways, such as day-reporting, intensive supervision and an assortment of alternatives. We need to change our thinking."

That's what Mayor Nutter's administration is trying to do, Resnick said.

"We view this as a temporary measure to allow us some breathing room until the mayor's plans are realized and we can see a reduction in our prison population," Resnick said. *