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Government Says No Criminal Conduct in New Jersey Mass Prisoner Beating, But Jury Awards Abused Prisoner $19,000; Sexual Harassment Suit Settled for $250,000

Government Says No Criminal Conduct in New Jersey Mass
Prisoner Beating, But Jury Awards Abused Prisoner $19,000;
Sexual Harassment Suit Settled for $250,000

by Matthew T. Clarke

Despite government reports claiming that guards committed no crimes in the alleged mass beating of prisoners at Bayside Prison in 1997, on June 9, 2004, a Camden, New Jersey federal jury awarded a New Jersey prisoner $19,000 for the mistreatment he suffered.

Laverna White, a former New Jersey state prisoner, filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging he was brutalized by members of the Special Operations Group (SOG) of the New Jersey Department of Corrections (DOC) during a lockdown that followed the fatal stabbing of guard Fred Baker by prisoner Steven Beverly. [See PLN , Nov. 2003, p. 10.] White, who weighed 310 pounds at the time of the July and August 1997 lockdown, was living in a trailer while serving a three-year sentence at the prison farm. He said the abuse started when he asked guard Richard Hinckley if he could shower and wash his clothes. Hinckley called in SOG members who shackled and handcuffed White and carried him, suspended by the shackles and handcuffs, to a maximum-security area. White's injuries included an asthma attack, a scraped head, contusion to his left knee, and nerve damage to his wrist. The jury awarded White $1,000 in compensatory damages plus $6,000 in punitive damages against prison administrator Gary Hilton, SOG chief officer Theodore Roth and the second in command of the DOC.

White's was the third of 371 individual federal cases filed by prisoners at the 1,200-man medium-security prison following the 1997 lockdown. The defendants won the first case and the second case was dismissed. Investigations by the DOC, U. S. Department of Justice, New Jersey Department of Public Safety, and New Jersey Attorney General's Office, the latest of which was released on March 25, 2004, all found that, while there were instances of unprofessional conduct by prison staff, there was no cause for criminal action. Some media outlets claim the reports "discount the allegations of abuse."

While it may be questioned whether the report of a government investigating itself can ever serve to discount allegations of abuse by government officials, it cannot be questioned that a federal jury found in favor of one of the prisoner victims. Perhaps the government investigators do not consider the DOC employees' behavior criminal, but the jury found it was unlawful. The difference may be that the jury heard and evaluated the credibility of prisoner and prison employee witnesses, whereas the governmental investigators accepted any version of the facts that would make the whole scandal go away. One thing is certain: when a third of the population of a prison files federal civil rights lawsuits alleging brutality, it isn't because of a few isolated incidents of "unprofessionalism". As this issue of PLN goes to press, another jury awarded a prisoner $245,000 for being beaten at Bayside. We will report details in an upcoming issue of PLN .

Sexual Harassment Settlement

in NJ Prison

In an unrelated case, in May, 2003, the New Jersey DOC settled for $250,000 a sexual harassment suit brought by a female guard at Riverside State Prison in Camden, New Jersey. Marianne Jervis filed the suit alleging guards Alonzo Piercy and Mikle Branch harassed her using obscene sexual comments and unwanted physical contact at the minimum-security prison. She also alleged that they undermined her authority at the prison and threatened to leave her unprotected during a lockdown. Guard supervisors "did nothing" when Jarvis complained, allowing the harassment to escalate. Piercy was previously convicted of assault charges for offensive touching charges filed by Jarvis. Jarvis will also be allowed to retire on a disability pension as part of the settlement. See: Jervis v .N.J. Dept. Of Corrections , USDC D NJ, Case No. CAM-L6990-99.

Sources: Camden Courier-Post;;; DOC press release .

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Related legal case

Jervis v. NJ Department of Corrections