(Published in The Press of Atlantic City on Friday, Feb. 4, 2005.)
Department of Corrections Commissioner Devon Brown testified that only four inmates caused New Year’s Day violence at Bayside State Prison, while three injured eyewitnesses who contended otherwise were not heard at Tuesday’s state Senate hearing.
Brown told the Senate Law and Public Safety and Veterans Affairs Committee the incident was no riot and the only weapons used or found were an iron and a broomstick.
Chuck Muller, acting chief of the DOC’s Special Investigations Division, described the administration’s version of the incident, insisting that only four inmates were involved, and not the 40 that corrections officers say attacked them.
State Sens. Nick Asselta and Steve Sweeney scoffed at Muller’s account.
“Four guys, 30 officers (injured),” said Asselta, R-Cumberland, Cape May, Atlantic. “We ought to suit them up, send them to Iraq and send a whole (Army) division home.”
DOC officials said weeks ago they’d charge six men with assault. Brown said that’s down to four because two suspects were found not to be in the trailer during the melee. Another 20 inmates were transferred out of Bayside due to disruptive but not violent conduct.
“There’s a reason we kept hearing `four,’ ” said Sweeney, D-Cumberland, Salem, Gloucester. “If it’s more than four, it’s a riot (according to state law).”
Brown lauded his officers’ professional performance while criticizing their failure to secure a key gate that allowed inmates to join the melee.
Brown later expressed skepticism about some officers’ injuries, saying several missed time due solely to high blood pressure and accelerated heartbeat.
“It was wrong what happened,” Brown said during the hearing in the Statehouse Annex. “There is no view to the contrary on my part. But it did not rise to the level that some would have you believe.”
Corrections officers and southern New Jersey legislators accused Brown and his investigators of playing down and covering up a riot at the Maurice River Township prison.
“It was a farce,” Bayside Lt. Kerry Riebe said of the hearing.
Riebe was one of three officers injured in the melee who sought but wasn’t allowed to testify Thursday.
Time ran out because Sen. John Girgenti, D-Bergen, Passaic, the committee’s chairman, scheduled the 10 a.m. hearing before a planned 1 p.m. hearing in the same room. Girgenti said there would be future hearings, but corrections officers were skeptical.
“We’ll be lucky to see them by Christmas. They never even listened to the people involved,” said Lt. Dan Habeck, who has a titanium plate in his face to replace an eye socket bone shattered in the violence. “The panel didn’t hear anything. When are they going to listen to the people who were actually there?”
During the hearing, Brown stressed the prison’s racial breakdown several times. He later said racial differences – and the murder seven years ago of Corrections Officer Fred Baker, of Cape May County, – heightened tensions at Bayside, which has the state’s widest proportional racial disparity between officers and inmates.
“When you have an inmate population of 89 percent minority, when the employee population is only 12 percent (minority), you have a problem,” Brown said.
Brown said he didn’t feel racist white officers caused the melee, blaming it on four “thugs,” butseveral officers felt he implied that racism caused the violence.
They noted that two black officers were injured during the melee. And two other black officers at Thursday’s hearing criticized Brown’s testimony
“Race has nothing to do with it,” said William Sparrow, a black officer at New Jersey State Prison in Trenton. “Inmates attack everything blue.”
Muller said the incident began at 4:35 p.m. when an inmate left the kitchen with a brown bag full of chicken, tuna, cheese and cake. Upon returning to his dormitory trailer, officers frisked him for contraband. During the frisk, the inmate turned quickly, yelled some profanity, then assaulted the three officers, Muller testified.
One officer moved to close gates leading off from the common area to residential wings and called for backup. The east gate, however, was not fully closed, Muller said. An officer moved to close it and was attacked by a second inmate.
Twelve officers responded as backup, and one of the inmates called “Bloods out!” while another later called “Dawgs out!” Muller said. A third, heavyset inmate broke a push broom over the back of an officer holding down one of the first two inmates. He then assaulted a supervisor, according to Muller.
“And when I say `assault,’ he pummeled the supervisor to the point of helplessness,” Muller testified.
As more officers arrived on the scene, the heavyset inmate and a fourth attacker ran through the open gate, down a hallway and out a back door. They hopped a fence into a nearby basketball court, then turned back and tried to get back into the trailer, according to Muller. They found the building secured by officers using pepper spray and leapt back into the court.
Officers eventually subdued the pair.
Muller’s account differed markedly from the early accounts of corrections officers, who say about 40 inmates attacked officers with irons, locks stuffed in socks, broomsticks and mop handles.
They say inmates ran out a back fire door at the “Bloods out!” call, hopped the one fence with no razor wire atop it and funneled in through the lone unsecured door in front of the trailer complex. Inside, they fought back-to-back in an organized fashion.
Asselta, Sweeney and Assemblyman Jeff Van Drew, D-Cumberland, Cape May, Atlantic, said they’d hold their own hearing in Cumberland County.
“The purpose of today’s hearing was to hear first-person testimony from the officers involved ilure of the committee hearing was that we did not accept eyewitness testimony from the people who were present during the riot.”