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Over 600 Prisoners Brutalized by New Jersey Prison Guards

On April 25, 2003, acting Attorney General Peter C. Harvey announced he would reopen a criminal investigation in which New Jersey prison guards reportedly brutalized over 600 prisoners.

When guard Fred Baker was stabbed to death in 1997, by prisoner Steven Beverly, at the medium security Bayside State Prison, all state prison facilities were placed on lockdown. What happened during that lockdown was a crime.

Surveillance tapes show one prisoner bouncing from step to step as guards dragged him down a steel staircase. Another prisoner, dragged along the floor by guards, asked to be allowed to walk; a supervisor ordered, "Don't pick him up, drag him. I want him drug along the floor, just like that, like a pig." Still other tapes reveal prisoners with various cuts and bruises from their beatings.

Eventually, reports of the brutality began to leak beyond the walls of Bayside. Ombudsman Maggie Aguero approached warden Scott Faunce with prisoners' allegations of physical persecution. Faunce claimed these prisoners had probably been fighting or had fallen against their bunks.

"I believe that Mr. Faunce was in denial," Ms. Aguero said.

Ms. Aguero recently told prisoners' attorneys that she was also approached by several guards who verified that prisoners were being beaten but at the time were reluctant to come forward.

Now, five years later, the prisoners' lawsuit has moved to the front burner and more guards are selling what they know.

Ali Mesghai, a Bayside guard, told how prisoners were forced to walk down the hall single file, heads down and hands unmoving at their side. "They could not drag their feet. If they tripped or stumbled, they got a beating," he said.

Wilbert Jones was a prisoner and victim of the two month ordeal at Bayside. Jones was a minimum security prisoner at Southern State Prison brought to Bayside to cook and clean during the lockdown. As he took out the trash one day he was accosted by a Bayside guard.

"He says `what are you doin out here,'" Jones recalls. "He pushes my chest twice. After the second time he pushes my chest, he starts swinging a stick at me. I am trying to shield the stick with my arms. It keeps hitting my arms." More guards ran to the scene. "I fall to the ground," recalls Jones. "I am kicked, punched. I ball up as much as possible."

Five years later Jones can still point to injuries he sustained in that beating. Additionally, Jones, who was up for parole at the time, was charged with refusing to obey orders, placed in solitary confinement for 180 days, and forfieted his chance to go home.

Like the rest of his fellow prisoners Jones' testimony was discounted. But in an unexpected turn of events, a recent interview turned up an eyewitness.

Helen Artis knows who was being beaten. She only remembered a group of guards rush past her and begin kicking and pummeling a prisoner who had been carrying a load of garbage from the kitchen.

Ms. Artis told interviewers, "During the time they were beating him -and this is something I will never forget he was howling like an animal, screaming, `I haven't done anything, I haven't done anything.'" Not that it mattered, she said, "They were going to beat him anyway. They were going to get someone." Ms. Artis retired in 2000. Her testimony allowed New York Times reporters to validate Jones' story. This incident is bolstered by the unrelated testimony of other prison employees including a nurse who claims to have treated hundreds of prisoners who had been beaten by guards and investigators who were forced to change their reports.

Jesse Rojas, departmental ombudsman at the time of the lockdown, told attorneys for the prisoners in a deposition that she had personally observed numerous prisoners with cuts and bruises. Despite reports to her supervisors the beatings and abuse continued.

In a memo to her supervisor Ms. Rojas wrote, "I advised [deputy warden Charles Ellis] that I suspected physical abuse of inmates was widespread throughout the facility." Rojas described the actions of the guards as "criminal." Ellis denied receiving any reports from Rojas.

Internal records reveal that like Rojas, six other ombudsmen also filed reports of beatings and abuse at Bayside. Deborah Kopp Davey was a senior internal affairs investigator at the time of the incident. While she did not work on the Bayside investigation personally, Davey recalls how other investigators complained of being forced to change their official reports by department headquarters. One of those investigators was Dan Riggins.

"He was complaining about, you write a report concluding something happened and they destroy it," Davey said. "They want reports changed, they were ordering reports changed. Dan was very clear that some of these inmates really got the worst of it."

Adrian Torres, a Bayside prisoner, recounts an ordeal where prisoners were forced to kneel in the gym for hours. Any movement, any sound resulted in a beating.

"You had inmates urinating in their clothes," he said. "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."

Jack Terhune was corrections commissioner and in charge of the investigation at the time. In November 1998, Terhune concluded that there was "no supporting evidence" to prisoners' claims of brutality and closed the investigation. He later told the New York Times that he had never received specific details or seen any videos of incidents during the lockdown.

Even the F.B.I. ignored pleas for help from prisoners. Files obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that only one agent made one phone call to Bayside in response to prisoners complaints. The agent concluded from that single call that no outside investigation was warranted.

Now, five years later, evidence and phone calls are becoming more plentiful than anyone ever imagined.

Source: New York Times

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