[Hpn] Using jail wing for homeless unlocks debate

chance martin streetsheet@sf-homeless-coalition.org
Thu, 18 Oct 2001 14:18:55 -0700


Bergen County Record
Thursday, October 18, 2001

Using jail wing for homeless unlocks debate

Staff Writer

Should some of Bergen County's homeless be housed in unused wings of the
newly expanded county jail?

The question was posed Tuesday to county freeholder candidates at a forum,
and a Democratic candidate's response that the idea could be a possibility
has set off a storm of rhetoric.

Republicans on Wednesday called the idea ludicrous, while some Democrats
said they could consider it among a range of options to use a jail they say
is an overbuilt boondoggle.

Throughout the campaign, Republican and Democratic candidates for freeholder
and sheriff have argued over how to use what is likely to be a nearly
half-empty jail once the final phase of its expansion is completed next

Republicans say the county should fill the unused space with inmates from
out of state or, as acting Sheriff Gordon Johnson started doing in May, with
detainees from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. With the state or
federal governments footing the bill, doing so would create much-needed
revenue, they say.

The Democrats oppose importing inmates, saying it would endanger jail
officers and county residents because outsiders could be a
higher-than-normal risk to flee. The Democrats questioned whether
reimbursement rates would cover the cost of housing out-of-county inmates.

With that debate growing bitter -- and with a plan to open a new homeless
shelter in Hackensack stalled -- an audience member at the freeholder
candidates forum posed the question: What about housing the homeless in an
unused wing of the jail?

Democrat Toni O'Malley, a councilwoman in Palisades Park, said that although
she backs the plan to open a new shelter in Hackensack, opening an unused
jail wing to the homeless could be among a range of options the county may
want to consider for using the vacant jail space.

"I would look at all alternatives [for the jail]," O'Malley said Wednesday.

The Democratic candidate for sheriff, Hackensack Police Chief Charles "Ken"
Zisa, said he also would consider the idea.

But Zisa said he would first have to be convinced the jail could remain
secure and that a separate entrance could be used. The jail is made up of
pods to segregate certain segments of the inmate population.

"If there is a way to isolate a [jail] wing and convert it, certainly, I'd
look at the possibility," said Zisa, a state assemblyman who has long
opposed importing out-of-state inmates and even sponsored legislation
banning the practice. "I recognize the need to look for other uses," he

Republicans on Wednesday blasted the idea.

"The Democrats are confused here," said GOP sheriff candidate and former
county Police Chief Joel Trella, who supports using most of the jail's
second phase to house INS detainees. "The jail is very simply a place to put
criminals -- people who have broken the law."

Added Paul Callan, one of the three Republican freeholder candidates: "I
find it to be ludicrous and an insult to the homeless. What will the next
proposal be? The jail as a day-care center?"

But Democrats say that by attacking the idea, the Republicans are merely
trying to divert attention from the fact that their administration spent
millions in cost overruns building a jail that is too large for the inmate

Freeholder Chairman Doug Bern, a Democrat who is seeking a second term, said
he didn't think that using part of the jail as a homeless shelter would be

But he said county officials also haven't shown that reimbursement rates
from outside prisoners -- at $65 a day for each INS detainee and $72 for
state inmates -- would fully cover the overhead at the high-tech lockup.

"They're the ones who put us in this quandary," Bern said of the
Republicans. "We can't just sit around with our hands over our eyes and not
acknowledge the terrible mistake that was made with the jail."


Staff Writer Shannon D. Harrington's e-mail address is

Copyright  2001 North Jersey Media Group Inc.

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