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Sudden Rise in New Jersey Prison Guard Firings

by Matt Clarke

The number of New Jersey state prison system employees terminated for disciplinary reasons rose from 33 in 2005 to 69 in 2006. 52 of the 2006 firings are final; 17 are on appeal. The reasons for the firings range from beating prisoners without provocation and allowing prisoners to attack other prisoners to smuggling drugs and cell phones in to prisoners. Guards also mishandled weapons, both on and off duty. One discharged a shotgun in the armory while another drove drunk with a firearm on his lap. A third, who was off duty at a bar, decided to spray a fly with Mace, making a bar patron ill.

"The policy is the same as it was last year," according to Matthew Schuman, prison system spokesman. "It shows that the department is very meticulous in policing itself. You would like there to be no disciplinary actions, but that's not realistic. It is important that we're not ignoring these incidents and we deal with them as efficiently as possible."

Of course, it could also be that prison employees were committing many more serious disciplinary offenses in 2006 than in 2005.

Joe Malagrino, president of the union local that represents the Guard, has another take on the increasing disciplinary problems:"That's a stressful environment that we deal with every day. You adapt to survive and you sometimes catch yourself acting like you are in jail when you're home. But if you did it and you're dirty, we don't want you."

So that's it! Offensive and dangerous behavior is O.K. if you are a guard in a prison, but don't behave the same way after passing out of the prison gates. Certainly that mentality would explain guard misbehavior--both in prison and outside.

The overall number of disciplinary actions did not rise as fast as the number of terminations. In 2006, there were 1,056 disciplinary actions against 867 prison employees. In 2005, there were 1,023 disciplinary actions against 778 employees. Missing work was the most common cause of disciplinary action, with 16 employees fired for absenteeism in 2006.

Prisoner activists and prison experts claim that the full amount of prison employee misbehavior is understated in the disciplinary records as many incidents of misbehavior are not reported, covered up or settled informally.

"What we don't know is how many people have done the same thing and not been caught," said Daniel Murphy, Appalachian State University professor of criminal justice.

Clearly, New Jersey prisoners don't believe that guard misconduct is being equitably punished.

'They don't have the sense that people are punished." said Jean Ross of Newark, New Jersey human-rights group People's Organization for Progress. "In many cases, prisoners who see things have not been interviewed. There is also a perception among prisoners that I speak with that there is an atmosphere of impunity and immunity in the prison. By that I mean that people won't be touched no matter what they do."

One can only hope that the increased rate of firings represents a lower tolerance for guard misconduct and not a surge of employee misbehavior in the 27,000-prisoner New Jersey prison system. Only time will tell which case is true.

Source: Star-Ledger,

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