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This reeks of corruption all over the place: prison screws vs. private halfway houses
08-23-2012, 04:20 AM,
This reeks of corruption all over the place: prison screws vs. private halfway houses
August 21, 2012
1,200-Bed Halfway House in Newark Is Operating Illegally, Suit Says

New Jersey’s largest private halfway house has operated for over a decade without legal authority and should be shut down, a union representing corrections officers claims in a lawsuit.

The suit, filed on Monday in Superior Court in Essex County, argues that county officials are improperly sending inmates to Delaney Hall, a 1,200-bed facility in Newark. It is run by Community Education Centers, a company that dominates the state’s halfway-house system and has close ties to Gov. Chris Christie and Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr., the Essex County executive.

New Jersey law allows for state inmates finishing their prison sentences to be sent to halfway houses, all of which in the state are privately run, but Delaney Hall primarily holds hundreds of county inmates awaiting trial, a population that the lawsuit contends cannot legally be held in private facilities.

“We need to get a judge’s opinion on whether or not it’s illegal,” said Joe Amato, a plaintiff in the suit and the president of the union local representing Essex corrections officers. “When you incorporate profits into corrections, that’s when corners are cut, because everyone is worried about the bottom line instead of safety.”

A spokesman for Community Education said company officials had not yet reviewed the lawsuit, and he declined to comment further. County officials did not respond to requests for comment.

The state Policemen’s Benevolent Association, which represents the corrections officers, has long criticized Delaney Hall as an overflow unit staffed by low-wage workers who are inadequately trained. Union officials also say that the private halfway houses threaten their members’ job security.

The lawsuit follows a series of articles published in The New York Times in June that detailed escapes, violence, drugs and gang activity inside New Jersey’s halfway houses.

The Times found that Delaney Hall regularly intermingled people held on low-level charges with inmates who have violent records, and that supervision was so lax that gang members roamed freely. Derek West Harris, a man held on traffic violations, was murdered inside Delaney Hall in 2009 by three inmates robbing him.

The lawsuit filed on Monday is the latest challenge to New Jersey’s halfway-house system.

The Legislature last month held two days of hearings about halfway houses, and Mr. Christie’s administration last week announced $45,000 in fines against halfway house operators, including Community Education, for lack of supervision and escapes.

New Jersey spent roughly $105 million in the 2011 fiscal year on the private halfway houses, which are intended to help inmates and parolees re-entering society. Of that, Community Education got about $71 million from the state and local governments.

Last December, Essex awarded Education and Health Centers of America, a nonprofit organization affiliated with Community Education, a $130 million contract to house county inmates and federal immigration detainees in Delaney Hall, the largest halfway house contract in the state. Education and Health was the only bidder for the contract.

Union officials and immigrant advocates contend that the company received special treatment in the bidding process because of political connections.

A senior vice president at Community Education, William J. Palatucci, is Mr. Christie’s former law partner and a close political adviser. Mr. DiVincenzo, a Democrat who is an ally of the Republican governor, has received more than $30,000 in campaign donations from Community Education executives and their family members since 2006.

Mr. Christie has been a strong supporter of Community Education, and in 2010 said Delaney Hall represented “the very best of the human spirit.” His office did not respond to requests for comment on the lawsuit.

The suit also charges Community Education with skirting a state law that allows only nonprofit groups to contract for halfway house services.

The company has long relied on its Education and Health affiliate to obtain its public contracts. The nonprofit organization then hires Community Education to run the halfway houses, passing along virtually the entire value of the contract.

The state attorney general signed off on the arrangement in the 1990s, when it was still new, but the union maintains that the relationship is improper. The suit contends Education and Health Centers is “a sham nonprofit corporation engaged solely in activities designed to generate income for” Community Education.

Delaney Hall opened in 2000 with 250 beds intended for county inmates sentenced to jail terms of less than a year. It has evolved into a center with 1,200 beds that mostly houses people waiting to make bail or face trial. Inmates are not allowed to leave, as they are at many halfway houses.

By sending inmates to Delaney Hall, Essex County frees up beds in the public jail, which it then rents to federal authorities at a significant profit. Since 2008, the county has been paid more than $77 million by the federal government for housing inmates and immigration detainees in the county jail. The county expects to receive at least $200 million more through 2016, including for detainees now held at Delaney Hall.
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