‘Every night’ guards are forced to work overtime

Since absorbing Hudson County’s juvenile detention center population, Union County facility has remained shorthanded

UNION COUNTY, NJ — After guards informed the Union County Freeholder Board late last week that they had concerns for their physical well being since Hudson County began sending their teen detainees to the Juvenile Detention Center in Linden, a fight broke out Tuesday morning leaving some guards with minor injuries.

According to Union County Communications Director Sebastian D’Elia, there was a “skirmish” in the juvenile facility with “minor injuries involved.”

“Four to five kids were involved in the altercation with the guards, but 14 were identified as participating,” D’Elia said. “The are reviewing surveillance footage to determine if any of the 16- to 19-year-olds will be charged as adults.

This most recent altercation comes on the heels of guards at the detention center making a recent plea to the freeholder board for help.

At the April 16 freeholder meeting, guards pointed out that since the facility began receiving additional juvenile offenders, there had been more confrontations than usual and guards had been injured as a result.

Adding to that, they said, was that the facility has been understaffed and guards have been forced to work double shifts.
“Every night we are forced to work 16-hour shifts,” said Ron Armstrong, a guard at the Linden detention center.

The guard, accompanied by two other guards, wanted the freeholder board to know that they need additional staff in order to deal with the juveniles, many of whom have been charged with murder, robbery and drug related charges.

However, the freeholders did not have any answers for the guards at the meeting because Frank Guzzo, Director of the Department of Human Services for the county, was away.

But Monday, in an interview with LocalSource, he spoke candidly about the situation that sparked the complaints.
“They are right. There has been an inordinate number of mandated double shifts, but it is no different than a nurse at a hospital when there is a shortage of staff at hand,” said Guzzo, explaining that every employee is not only aware that they may have to do a back-to-back shift, but they sign a paper agreeing to do so when they are hired.

Guzzo explained that Hudson County only began sending over their juvenile offenders in February and due to eight employee vacancies the facility has had to put guards on double shifts.

The County forged a shared-services agreement with Hudson County at the end of last year to house the additional juvenile offenders beginning in February that increased the inmate population from approximately 28 to 52. Nineteen of the juveniles are from Union County, and 33 are from Hudson County.

The county could realize as much as $2.1 million in additional annual revenue for taking on Hudson County’s juvenile offenders, or approximately $230 a day for each detainee the first year and $240 during the second year. Hudson County was underutilizing their facility, housing only 30 offenders when they had room for 100.

In March of 2008 the county replaced its former 34-bed detention facility with a state-of-the-art, 76-bed, 70,000 square-foot building, with the emphasis on “normative justice,” or the opportunity to change behavior in a way that will benefit the offender, family and community at large.

Guzzo, while not wanting to minimize guard concerns, said his department has little control over the situation until additional guards are hired.

“We can’t control the number of vacancies because we rely on the state civil service for a list of applicants who passed the required test for guards,” the director explained, noting the facility is down eight employees because of retirements and on-the-job injuries.

Built in 2008, the Linden facility was designed to hold 74 juveniles and initially that is what staff handled back then, Guzzo said.
“We usually have a staff of 28, so any increase in detainees with a reduced staff is difficult for them to understand,” said the director, pointing out the ideal situation would be one guard on duty for every eight juveniles.

“As of today we have 52 juveniles at the center,” Guzzo said, which means there are only about 20 guards for all three shifts,” Guzzo said, but noted that the state is well aware of the fact they are in transition.

Guzzo explained that representatives from the New Jersey Juvenile Justice Commission have been on site at the Linden facility daily since Hudson County began sending over their offenders, most of which are between the ages of 14 and 18.

“They are aware of our situation and are working with us to be in compliance,” the Human Services Director said, explaining that the county is working with the state to get applicants that are qualified for the openings, and have conducted dozens of interviews. The problem is that after a candidate is selected, the state requires a series of checkpoints and that, he said, takes time.

“We care about the safety of our employees and our juvenile offenders,” he said, adding “we are all frustrated by this situation.”

Guzzo also explained that the entire situation “could have and would have” been avoided if Hudson County participated in the Intergovernmental Transfer program.

“They are the only county in the state that doesn’t participate in the transfer program, which means we couldn’t bring over their guards to replace the ones that retired,” the director said.

Because they did not participate in the program, Hudson County guards could not transfer to Union County without losing accrued time towards their pension.

“This could have been a smooth transition, but you can’t expect guards to come over here and lose their seniority,” Guzzo said, but noted that Hudson County recently agreed to participate in the transfer program, which should rectify things within the next two weeks.