Despite the controversy that capped Owens' tenure in Pennsylvania, county officials said they were confident that Owens would do a fine job as head of the 1,000-inmate jail.
"I'm excited to have Dave on board," said Freeholder Steven M. Petrillo, liaison to the county Department of Corrections. "He really has remarkable qualifications."
Owens, 57, of Philadelphia, brings nearly three decades of experience to the job. He started as a corrections officer in the Philadelphia prison system in 1964 and worked his way up to superintendent of the city prison system by 1980. Owens held that post until 1987, when he was named head of the Pennsylvania prison system.
He quit the job in 1990 after a state investigating commission criticized his hands-off management style during the three-day prison rampage that left 123 people injured and caused more than $15 million in damage. Petrillo downplayed the criticism yesterday and suggested that Owens had been unfairly blamed for the mistakes of his subordinates.
"He was not the front-line guy in charge of that facility at the time," Petrillo said. "Rightfully, he let the warden do his job."
Notwithstanding Owens' difficulties as a corrections commissioner, Petrillo said he had done a stellar job as head of the Philadelphia prison system - a position that more closely mirrors the role he will play in Camden County.
Owens will serve an indefinite term as interim warden, earning $59,000 annually plus a car allowance of $500 monthly. Strang was not paid a car allowance, but county officials said Owens was worth the extra money because his job would have a broader scope.
In addition to running the jail, Petrillo said, Owens would conduct an audit of the facility's finances and management. County officials had planned to hire an outside firm to conduct such an audit, so the move will save money, he said.
Owens, whose consulting firm had submitted a proposal to do the audit, was chosen for the warden's job after Strang unexpectedly announced his departure. The freeholders, who took control of the jail from Sheriff William J. Simon last month, had been counting on Strang to lead a smooth transition.
When the warden abruptly left, citing political interference, county officials were at a loss to replace him. Petrillo said they unsuccessfully tried to woo several candidates before settling on Owens' temporary appointment. Part of his job will be to recommend a successor, who would serve a five-year term.
In an interview yesterday, Owens said he was looking forward to the challenge of running a jail that is the subject of two federal lawsuits and was the scene of a recent escape.
The freeholders are to take a formal vote on the appointment at a meeting next week. Petrillo said he had personally lobbied the four other members of the board's Democratic majority and was confident that they would vote yes.
Republican Freeholders Joseph R. Condo and Robert E. Kennedy said they had not been informed of Owens' selection yesterday.