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Morales v. County of Hudson

Decided: October 23, 1989.


On appeal from Superior Court, Chancery Division, Hudson County.

Petrella, Havey and Stern, JJ. The opinion of the court was delivered by Stern, J.A.D.


The Department of Corrections (DOC) and its Commissioner appeal, pursuant to leave granted, from portions of a post-judgment order entered July 20, 1989 requiring him to "temporarily transfer" 100 county sentenced inmates "from the Hudson County Pavonia Avenue Jail to a state or other county correctional facility." The County of Hudson appeals from portions of the same order which placed it "under the obligation to undertake the construction of additional Correctional Facilities."*fn1 We denied stays pending appeal by the Commissioner and the County, as did the Supreme Court. However, we consolidated and accelerated the appeals.

Subsequently, the Commissioner constructed and opened a facility in Secaucus, known as "Tent City", where up to 100 county inmates of the Hudson County Jail (and at times greater numbers) have been housed since August 16, 1989. On September 1, 1989 the trial judge ordered the Commissioner to "use his best efforts to keep a population of approximately 100 inmates in the tent facility established by the Commissioner." On motion of the Commissioner we declined to close the facility but ordered a staged attrition based on the parole, completion of sentence or release of inmates transferred there. We also denied a motion filed on the eve of argument by amicus curiae, appointed by the trial court "to represent the criminal justice

system,"*fn2 to remand this matter so that the trial judge could order the Commissioner to review the County's proposed amendments to his construction plan. That plan, approved by the trial judge in the July 20, 1989 order, required construction by the County of the additional correctional facilities.


This matter, originally initiated as a class action by inmates of the Hudson County Jail on Pavonia Avenue in Jersey City (hereinafter "jail" or "Pavonia Avenue Jail") in or about 1981, is based on their claim that severe overcrowding and other deficiencies in the jail violated their constitutional rights.*fn3 After a trial Judge Gregory J. Castano's written decision on May 19, 1982 found that the conditions in the Jail were "intolerable and shocking to the conscience" and constituted an "infringement of the constitutional rights" of the inmates.

In concluding that "judicial intervention in this case has become indispensable," Judge Castano further noted:

courts in the first instance will always defer to local governing authorities in the administration of their prisons, but if the institution does not conform to constitutional minima and the authorities do not act, the court must put aside that deference and take whatever steps may be necessary to remedy the violations. [citing Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U.S. 396, 405, 94 S. Ct. 1800, 1807, 40 L. Ed. 2d 224 (1974)].

Judge Castano held that the jail originally designed for 280 inmates, but then containing 553 inmates (including pretrial

detainees),*fn4 would have to be closed no later than June 1, 1987 if the conditions were not corrected. Jurisdiction was retained by the trial court "to monitor compliance" with its order while the County constructed "a new jail facility" and renovated the existing jail "in conjunction with the new facility" or implemented "any reasonable alternative."

On March 8, 1983, upon denying a motion for direct certification of an appeal, subsequently dismissed as moot, the Supreme Court entered an order remanding this matter to the trial court, for the limited purpose of conducting hearings to determine a schedule of temporary inmate removal to permit the completion of a fire and life safety system at the jail and authorizing a trial court order directing the removal of "49 State-sentenced inmates" to the custody of the Commissioner of Corrections.

Despite the trial court's continuing supervisory efforts in this matter, the County has failed with sufficient speed to remedy the unconstitutional conditions which have magnified at the jail.*fn5 On January 22, 1987, Judge Burrell Ives Humphreys, who subsequently took over responsibility for post-judgment proceedings, concluded that "the repeated failures and laxity of county officials . . . can simply not be permitted to continue". On February 4, 1987 he entered an order directing the county "to treat the jail construction and renovation project as urgent and to pursue it with diligence and expedition". Thereafter, plans for the construction of a new jail facility in Kearny, now scheduled to be completed in 1991, were finalized.

It is undisputed that the population of the Pavonia Avenue Jail has substantially increased since 1982, and it can hardly be

debated that that facility has been overcrowded at all relevant times.*fn6

The worsening conditions at the Pavonia Avenue jail, originally documented in the findings of Judge Castano (including a lack of medical and recreational facilities, an inadequate infrastructure, years of deferred maintenance and a burgeoning population) resulted in an even greater level of overcrowding than had been determined to be unconstitutional in 1982. The consequent deterioration of conditions were discussed at various status conferences held in this matter before Judge Humphreys in 1988 and 1989. As a result of the alarming increase in the jail population, Judge Humphreys held an emergency hearing on September 23, 1988 and found that "[e]mergent and dangerous conditions exist [that] unless promptly remedied pose a serious risk to public safety and well-being of the correction officials . . . and inmates at the jail."

By order dated October 14, 1988, Judge Humphreys ordered implementation of emergency measures, including transfer of inmates from Pavonia Avenue to the Annex in Secaucus, temporary assignment of judges to the criminal division, review of bails by the Prosecutor and relocation of offices at the jail to provide additional space for inmates. That order further provided that the DOC was to remove all state-sentenced inmates

from Hudson County.*fn7

Pursuant to the same order, the County was further directed to expedite the acquisition and use of additional trailers at the Jail Annex in Secaucus and to immediately search for additional facilities to house inmates on an emergency basis. After another hearing on October 28, 1988, the County was further directed on November 2, 1988 to search for additional custodial facilities for 250 to 350 prisoners "to be made ready for use as soon as possible." In response, the County proposed the construction of prefabricated jail units on an expedited basis on the site where the new jail is being constructed in Kearny. That proposal was approved on January 24, 1989 and that facility is now scheduled to open later this month.*fn8

On November 2, 1988, Judge Humphreys also ordered DOC to inspect the Pavonia Avenue Jail and provide a report to the court on the conditions there and on the maximum number of prisoners that it could hold. In a memorandum, dated November 7, 1988, the DOC reported that 546 is the "maximum number of inmates who can be housed without, in the words of the court order, 'violating minimal standards of human decency.'" At the time of this recommendation the population of the jail was approximately 675. In addition, the DOC report noted that 546 could be housed there only if repairs were made in the areas of plumbing, electrical systems, sanitation and fire safety; proper supervision, management and maintenance were instituted; every inmate received a bunk; recreation was provided daily and prisoner discipline was maintained. It was also

noted that the conditions at the jail had deteriorated since the last DOC inspection ...

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