A bad situation
Some details of jail death report may be released
by Al Sullivan
Reporter staff writer
Jan 28, 2018 | 3235 views | 0 0 comments | 179 179 recommendations | email to a friend | print
JAIL
A GRIM TASK – Hudson County Freeholders are reviewing a report on conditions that led to at least five deaths in the jail this year, and will release some of the information to the public later this month
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Some details of a report on why six people died in the Hudson County Correction Facility over the last two years will be released to the public at a special meeting on Jan. 31, according to Hudson County officials.

The Board of Freeholders received the massive document at a closed caucus meeting on Jan. 23, during which time they briefly talked about the findings.

The report was generated by two deaths earlier this year, but took on added urgency with two additional suicides within two days earlier this month.

In June, Rolando Meza Espinoza, who was being held at the HCCF as a federal immigration detainee, died as a result of internal bleeding. In July, Jennifer Towle died in the jail after 178 days of a 180 day sentence for driving while intoxicated. A state medical examiner found that she had swallowed a number of objects, including nail clippers, which led to her death.

Earlier this month, Dominick J. Ramunni died at the jail while awaiting sentencing on a charge of theft. Within 48 hours, Cynthia Acosta was found in her cell hanging from a bed sheet. She died a few days later. Last year, the jail had another suicide.

Last July, in response to the deaths at the jail, the freeholders voted to appropriate $70,000 to a committee to seek answers and $90,000 to the National Commission of Correctional Health seeking solutions to some of the jail’s problems.

The report received just prior to the Jan. 23 caucus left many of the freeholders in a sober mood, even though they will delay releasing the details until reviewed by the county’s law department.

“We need to review this report to determine which information we can release to the public,” said Freeholder Bill O’Dea, a member of the freeholders’ public safety committee, who has been reviewing the other reports as well.

Freeholder Chairman Anthony Vainieri said while his sympathies go out to the families of the victims the county can’t discuss the report at the moment.

“We can’t yet discuss this in public, but be assured we are doing all we can do, and we will bring the resources and staff together to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Donaldo Battista, counsel for the county, said an outside and independent attorney will review the report to determine what can be released to the public.

“We didn’t ask for this report just to only report what is good,” O’Dea said. “The public needs to know good or bad.”

Abe Antun, county administrator, said, “We need to get out front of this investigation and be proactive.

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“Had we obtained this information from the start, two of these deaths might have been avoided.” – Bill O’Dea

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Need to improve intake information

The report comes after a December report by the Office of Inspector General of Homeland Security that cited HCCF as one of five facilities nationwide with serious problems concerning conditions for detainees held in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody. Inspectors conducted unannounced inspections of five detention facilities around the U.S. to evaluate their compliance with ICE detention standards. These facilities were based on complaints to the federal hotline by immigrant rights and other groups.

The Hudson County Correctional Facility was among those visited based on the hotline complaints. These include problems with detainees getting needed medications in a timely manner, lack of sanitary products for proper hygiene, and bad or out of date food.

“Overall, we identified problems that undermine the protection of detainees’ rights, their humane treatment, and the provision of a safe and healthy environment,” said the report, which was based on visitor observations, interviews with detainees, and reviews of documents.

The federal report found Hudson County deficiencies were cited in several areas, including failure to provide eyeglasses when lost or needed by detainees, as well as medications not provided.

The report said investigators were very concerned about the way the jail dispenses medication to prisoners.

“What can be made public should be made public,” Antun said, noting that the county jail needs to improve the information it collects when first admitting prisoners, and wants the jail staff to provide forms used to obtain information concerning a prisoner’s health when being incarcerated.

Freeholder Caridad Rodriguez said the jail staff must have the right information on an inmate when that inmate is brought into the jail, and there must be medical information on every inmate.

While jail officials do obtain some information during the initial intake, information about a prisoner’s physician is not obtained until later interviews.

“Had we obtained this information from the start, two of these deaths might have been avoided,” O’Dea said.

Two of the most recent deaths came as result of suicide attempts, officials said.

One of the conclusions of the Public Safety Committee is to increase surveillance inside the cells.

O’Dea he wants a report from the legal department to determine if there are legal restrictions and said the county will find the funding for cameras and related software that will allow closer monitoring

“If we had this, at least one of these people would still be alive today,” he said.

Al Sullivan may be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com.

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