Solitary confinement in U.S. prisons can take many forms–including the temporary lockdown of units, buildings, or entire prisons. These 24-hour lockdowns are routinely instituted in response to perceived threats to prison safety or authority. On occasion, they can extend to days, weeks, or even months, during which the prison is under a kind of martial law even more extreme than its normal conditions.
At Bayside State Prison in southern New Jersey, this kind of lockdown was instituted after the murder of a guard in 1997. It lasted more than a month, during which hundreds of Bayside prisoners say they were beaten and otherwise abused.
Their complaints languished for a decade. But last month, a retired judge, who was appointed by the federal courts to be a fact-finder in the case, determined that the New Jersey Department of Corrections is liable for their abuse. The decision by former U.S. District Chief Judge John W. Bissell, clears the way for inmates to sue the state.
A detailed report by Mike Newell in the Philadelphia Inquirer describes what took place at the prison in the summer of 1997.
Bayside, a medium-security prison with nearly 2,400 inmates in Cumberland County, was put on lockdown between July 30 and Sept. 3, 1997, after guard Fred Baker was stabbed in the back by an inmate with a makeshift knife.
Prisoners were confined to their cells, visitors were prohibited, and a Special Operations Group (SOG) consisting of 57 corrections officers from across New Jersey interrogated inmates and searched cells for weapons. The SOG officers dressed in riot gear, carried batons and mace, and did not wear name badges.
When the lockdown was lifted, inmates began to report stories of abuse to the Department of Corrections. More than three dozen inmates told The Inquirer in 1997 that they had been repeatedly beaten, dragged, forced to sit handcuffed in the prison gym for hours, threatened with dogs, and paraded through a gauntlet of SOG officers who beat them with nightsticks.
What happened next is an extreme version of a typical story–a series of half-hearted “investigations” and widespread coverups. As John Sullivan reported in the New York Times in 2003, in a long investigative article on the lockdown:
After the lockdown ended in September 1997, complaints of abuse began to leak from the prison. Newspapers reported the stories, and the Department of Corrections promised a thorough investigation.
The F.B.I. began to investigate after receiving written complaints from several inmates. But the investigator’s case file, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, showed that the agent handling the case made only one telephone call: to the internal affairs division’s office at Bayside State Prison. Over the phone, the file says, the agent learned that internal affairs planned to conduct its own investigation. Because internal affairs was already on the job, and because some inmates had hired lawyers, the agent concluded no further F.B.I. investigation was needed. The agent closed the case.
The F.B.I. file also noted that the United States attorney’s office in Newark had subpoenaed records about the lockdown, but the Justice Department said it closed the case in August 1999, for lack of evidence. Both the United States attorney and the F.B.I. declined to comment.
In the end, the investigation fell to the Department of Corrections’ internal affairs unit. Internal affairs investigators conducted hundreds of interviews and gave lie detector tests to several inmates. Some inmates passed those tests when they reported abuse by guards. But in nearly every case, investigators said they could not substantiate the charges against guards. Often, the investigators’ reports said cases boiled down to inmates’ words against guards’, or inmates could not clearly identify the guards in question.
”It seems almost there was a decision not to credit what an inmate says,” said Justin Loughry, a lawyer representing some Bayside inmates. By late 1998, internal affairs investigators concluded there was no evidence of widespread abuse…In the end, no charges, criminal or administrative, related to the aftermath of the murder were brought against guards at Bayside.
But ”questions about the Bayside episode refused to die,” the Times reported. The newspaper’s own investigations, along with those of inmates’ lawyers, uncovered internal prison documents, videotapes, and testimony from whistleblowers that supported the inmates abuse claims. Investigators complained of being told to file inaccurate reports. A few guards came forward to tell about the abuses they witnessed, and one prison ombudsman said that the warden had “responded to reports of injuries by saying prisoners had probably gotten into fights or fallen against their bunks.” According to the Times article:
Portions of surveillance videotapes, identified through the state’s Public Records Law, show guards dragging a handcuffed inmate down a steel staircase like a bag of laundry, and yanking another screaming inmate along a hallway. Other tapes show inmates with cuts and bruises. When an inmate being dragged along the floor begs to walk, a supervisor orders guards to keep him on the ground.
”Don’t pick him up, drag him,” a voice says on the tape. ”I want him drug along the floor, just like that, like a pig.”…
Inmates told similar tales. Adrian Torres, imprisoned for car theft, said prisoners were forced to kneel motionless in the gym for hours. Anyone who moved or complained was dragged to the back of the room and beaten, he said.
”You had inmates urinating in their clothes,” Mr. Torres said in an interview at Northern State Prison in Newark. ”They made it clear: If you turn your head, if you lift your hand up, if you even say anything, they were going to beat you up.”
A prison nurse testified in an unrelated administrative trial that hundreds of inmates went to the infirmary after altercations with guards. The former warden of a nearby prison said that an inmate returned from a work detail at Bayside bearing marks of a beating.
One guard, who requested anonymity, recalled that inmates were forced to walk a gantlet of guards who beat them with nightsticks. ”I could hear them screaming,” the guard said. ”It was horrible.”…
One prisoner, Wilbert Jones, said he was attacked and beaten without provocation by a group of guards, then charged with refusing to follow orders, and placed in solitary confinement for 180 days. ”It is unimaginable when you are in the hole, locked up for something you didn’t do,” Jones told the Times. ”That had to be the lowest point in my life.” His account was later corroborated by another guard who witnessed the attack, but because of the incident, he was denied parole–and remains in prison today.
Four days after the New York Times article appeared, in April 2003, the New Jersey attorney general opened a new investigation. A few inmates have since won damages in civil trials. But the March 29 decision by Judge Bissell will allow dozens, if not hundreds of inmates to sue the state for monetary damages.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Bissell found that it was reasonable for the DOC to place the prison on lockdown following the killing of a guard. However, “both as designed and thereafter implemented, [the lockdown] violated the Eighth Amendment rights of inmates.” It quickly became clear that the guard’s murder was “an isolated incident,” Bissell wrote, so ”a full lockdown with SOG’s intimidating presence was not only unnecessary, but dangerous to the safety and well-being of the inmates.”
How often do we hear government officials express concern about “the safety and well-being of inmates”? To hear these words from a former federal district court judge, who has been appointed as a “special master” and empowered to make decisions about the case, offers some hope that after 13 years, these prisoners may finally find some justice.