The Public Defender’s Office is seeking to block closure of the Gloucester County jail, claiming transfer of inmates to far-away counties would violate their right to counsel.

In a suit filed May 10, the office argues the plan would restrict the ability of lawyers to confer with their clients, diminishing the quality of defense.

The county’s top lawyer, however, says the closure shouldn’t interfere with lawyers’ representation of clients, and county officials have met with public defenders to address those concerns.

The plan to close the Gloucester County Adult Correctional Facility, first discussed publicly in March, will save the county about $2 million this year alone, officials say.

The Board of Freeholders has approved contracts with Cumberland, Salem and Burlington counties for the transfer of male inmates, providing for all inmates to be transferred by June 1. A fourth contract with Essex County was executed in case the others were voided.

Female inmates were sent to Camden and Salem county jails two years ago.

Public Defender Joseph Krakora and three indigent pretrial defendants housed in the jail claim the transfer "will deny all pretrial detainees their constitutionally protected rights to access to counsel and right to effective assistance of counsel, and to all detainees their rights to a speedy trial, due process of law and the equal protection of the laws."

At present, the public defender’s Gloucester office is steps from the facility, which is connected by a secured tunnel to the county’s criminal courts building. Assistant deputy public defenders are able to visit clients in jail conference rooms when their schedule permits. Each assistant handles 250 matters on average, according to the plaintiffs.

The courthouse itself does not allow for such conferencing because lawyers aren’t permitted in secured areas and there are only a few visiting windows through which discovery documents can’t be passed, the plaintiffs claim.

With clients moved to other counties, attorneys, family members and other visitors would have to make lengthy trips to meet with them, and other jails lack sufficient visitation space, the plaintiffs say.

The service agreements allow for inmates to be transferred from one county to another without court approval. "Counsel will face the prospect of having to locate his or her detained clients each day he or she seeks to make a jail visit, or send correspondence."

The plaintiffs claim Gloucester County officials executed the plan without clearance from the state Department of Corrections, which regulates minimum standards for housing inmates.

The courts also weren’t consulted, even though they have authority over where inmates are placed, they say.

The plaintiffs seek declarative relief, injunctive relief and attorney fees under the state Civil Rights Act.

The case, Krakora v. County of Gloucester, was assigned to Superior Court Judge Ronald Bookbinder, who is also handling a suit over the jail closure by corrections officers. They claim the plan violates the Uniform Shared Services and Consolidation Act, which requires officials to account for government workers’ seniority when merging services and eliminating staff.

Aside from Gloucester, the contracting counties, along with their freeholder boards, are named defendants.

Gloucester County Counsel Matthew Lyons says attorneys from his office or outside counsel will defend the suit.

County officials and public defenders met on April 25 to discuss their concerns, he adds.

"There’s no intent that the Public Defender’s Office will have to travel anywhere to visit their clients," Lyons says. "We are proactively addressing each and every concern in this undertaking as they come up."

But any talks have fallen well short of developing a workable plan, says Assistant Public Defender Dale Jones, the office’s director of policy and legislative affairs.

He says five vans to shuttle inmates to and from attorney conferences were promised at one point, but calls it "a slap in the face … that the rights of our clients can rise and fall on a traffic jam or a flat tire or the like."

The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Justin Loughry of Loughry and Lindsay in Camden, says any plan to shuttle inmates "is unworkable and will create a whole host of other constitutional concerns."

Cumberland County Counsel Theodore Baker says no decision has been made about who will represent the county, but lawyers from his office have handled the corrections officers’ suit and likely will handle Krakora’s, too.

Burlington County Solicitor Peter Nelson did not return a call. Neither did Essex County Counsel James Paganelli.

According to the public defender’s suit, the Gloucester jail on average housed 304 inmates in April. It opened in 1983 and originally was intended for 118 inmates.