(Published in The Press of Atlantic City on Jan. 7, 2005.)
MAURICE RIVER TOWNSHIP
It was a riot.
It began Saturday afternoon with a standard frisk for contraband – food, in this case – in a Bayside State Prison dorm’s common room. One inmate didn’t like it, decked the corrections officer and yelled, “Rat-a-tat-tat! Blood out! Where’s my dogs?”
The “blood out!” cry then resonated from other men’s lips throughout the dorm, corrections officer union officials said.
Within a minute, three corrections officers faced at least 30 inmates, who flooded into the common area and attacked with irons, broomsticks, mop handles and locks stuffed in socks and wielded like flails. The inmates fought in an organized back-to-back formation, one side facing the one open door through which reinforcements had to come to aid the officers.
The officers fought for their lives in what state law defines as a riot, a violent incident involving at least five people per side.
This week, 29 officers missed work with injuries. Two spent Thursday in surgery. One lieutenant has a broken eye socket and numerous other injuries after being hit in the face with an iron.
Union officials for Bayside’s officers gave this account Thursday after a half-dozen men claiming to be corrections officials anonymously contacted The Press with details of the New Year’s Day riot. All expressed concerns about a cover-up in the making, a sentiment echoed by their union head.
Their tale differs from the official story out of Trenton.
State Department of Corrections spokesman Matt Schuman said about 20 officers were hurt in the “disturbance.” Schuman said the 26 inmates involved have been shipped off to New Jersey State Prison in Trenton.
A state Department of Corrections spokeswoman initially said no weapons were involved. On Thursday, Schuman said he “can’t confirm or deny” the presence of weapons. He couldn’t comment on any gang roles, either. He didn’t confirm or deny the union officials’ accounts.
Schuman said he can’t answer specific charges until the investigation is complete, which should be sometime next week.
Union officials, on the other hand, had plenty to say.
“It’s scary because it was orchestrated,” said Troy Ferus, head of the New Jersey State Corrections Association, or NJSCA, a union representing Bayside’s rank-and-file officers. “These guys knew their stuff.”
The melee took place in the common area of a dorm that’s essentially several mobile homes renovated and connected. The common area opens to hallways leading to four wings, according to state and union descriptions. Two, sometimes three, officers patrol each dorm, which house more than 120 inmates.
When the “blood out!” call went out at about 4:45 p.m., inmates streamed into the common area, union officials said. Officers eventually shut gates blocking off the wings, but that didn’t stop inmates. They ran down their halls, out fire escapes, and hopped the one fence that had no “razor ribbon” atop it, Ferus said. Then they came around the front of the building and flooded into the common room through the front door, the only one left unlocked.
“Every guy in every wing knew how to do it,” Ferus said.
Inside, the inmates protected themselves from responding officers by fighting back to back.
“The inmates took up positions that would appear to be previously practiced,” said Joe Carmen, a lawyer for the NJSCA.
The officers subdued the inmates after about 20 minutes, but took far worse a beating, according to union and state accounts. All told, as many as 40 inmates joined the melee, Carmen said, and they walked away with bruises, scrapes and other minor injuries.
“They should be subdued; it shouldn’t be a Rodney King deal,” Carmen said. “That’s the way they’re trained.”
Carmen spoke on behalf of several corrections officers because the state forbids the officers from speaking to the media without approval from the Department of Corrections. Each person who called The Press claiming to be a corrections officer refused to give his name because of concerns that he would be fired for speaking to the media. Ferus echoed their concerns that state officials are downplaying the incident’s severity.
“It’s not in their best interests to go around blasting that some officers got hurt,” Ferus said.
Union officials say the riot may not have been scheduled for the very moment that it took place, but a plan was in place, and the “blood out!” cry set it into motion. The gang, the Bloods, had infiltrated Bayside in far greater numbers than corrections officers realized, say Ferus and Carmen, who believe most of the marauding inmates were Bloods.
In the past, officers got 40 hours a year of training, including classes in identifying gang signs. They don’t anymore, due to state cutbacks.
“They’re aware that there’s gang activity,” Carmen said. “I don’t know if they were aware it was this organized.”
(Ed. note: I first broke the story on Jan. 2, a short story based on initial EMT tips and DOC accounts. It led to this story.)