Documents dispute DOC claims about Bayside melee

(Published in The Press of Atlantic City on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2005.)

Department of Corrections documents contradict some findings of an internal DOC investigation that found only four inmates took part in the New Year’s Day violence at Bayside State Prison.

A DOC spokeswoman acknowledged Monday more than four inmates could have taken part in the melee at the prison in Leesburg, Maurice River Township, after being shown memos from high-ranking prison officials that indicate more inmates were involved.

“I’m not saying it’s out of the realm of possibility,” DOC spokeswoman Deirdre Fedken-heuer said. “We have to be able to prove our case beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The DOC’s Special Investigations Division couldn’t prove charges against more than four inmates, she said. Every officer involved in the melee identified the first four inmates in the days after the incident. Corrections officers wrote up seven more inmates Jan. 6, but they passed DOC polygraph tests affirming their innocence, Fedkenheuer said. Two weren’t even at the scene, DOC Commissioner Devon Brown said last week.

Investigators rejected some officers’ assertions as speculative and untrue, Fedkenheuer said.

“We’re still standing by the fact that there were four inmates that were the main assaulters,” Fedkenheuer said.

DOC Commissioner Devon Brown testified Thursday before a state Senate panel that only four inmates participated in the melee. Corrections officer union officials and local legislators say that number is key because more than four would meet the legal definition for a riot.

The internal memos, an executive summary dated Jan. 11 and Jan. 24, don’t give specific numbers on how many inmates took part in the violence. Attached charts show officers wrote up 11 inmates as assaulters, matching the numbers provided by Fedkenheuer.

Six inmates were treated for injuries in Bayside’s infirmary after the melee, according to one chart. Asked how six inmates were hurt if only four had fought Fedkenheuer replied, “No comment.”

Fedkenheuer said she found the timing of the documents’ release interesting and noted they were written well after the incident, as well as after a Jan. 3 meeting in Trenton where the incident was reviewed.

Bayside’s two top officials – Acting Administrator Greg Bartkowski and Chief Steve Keith Walters – wrote the two memos. Both were reassigned, effective Saturday. Their transfers came shortly after Thursday’s contentious Senate hearing, during and after which southern New Jersey legislators and corrections officers accused DOC officials of trying to cover up a riot.

Chief Alan Ayars, a former Bayside officer who had been working in Trenton, takes Walters’s place, while DOC Director of Operations Karen Willoughby will temporarily oversee Bayside.

To date, no inmate accounts of the New Year’s Day violence have been made public, while DOC officials and corrections officers have argued over what really happened.

Corrections officers say more than 30 inmates rioted and more than 20 officers were injured. DOC officials maintain the brawl was much smaller and have expressed skepticism about some officers’ injuries.

Both sides agree that the incident began when one inmate returned to his dormitory trailer with bagged chicken and desserts, at which time officers frisked him for contraband – in this case, food.

The Bayside memos support this account and identify the inmate as Omar McCray, 25, who is imprisoned on drug and theft charges. The melee launched from this encounter, with inmates Terrance Meggett, Lawrence Brown and Tyrese Wallace joining in shortly thereafter.

The memos describe a chaotic brawl, but show officers may have exaggerated inmates’ usage of makeshift weapons.

“A majority of the assaults were in the form of punches and kicks: however, one inmate hit an officer in the head with a mop handle and another with a clothes iron,” Bartkowski wrote in an executive summary sent Jan. 11 to Willoughby, who oversees several state prisons.

Walters later wrote Bartkowski in a more in-depth overview, “Numerous staff are assaulted with weapons of opportunity to include a broomstick, inmate locks and a tethered iron.”

Shortly thereafter, officers removed irons from the dormitory trailers as one of several security precautions.

The Senate Law and Public Safety and Veterans Affairs Committee will hear more testimony on the New Year’s Day incident Feb. 28. Fedkenheuer said DOC officials would hand over all documents from the investigation to Cumberland County Prosecutor Ron Casella as early as today.