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Self-Defense: A New Jersey Prisoner’s Right

Self-Defense: A New Jersey Prisoner's Right

A New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, has held that a prisoner has a right to self-defense while incarcerated. Thus, a hearing officer must make specific findings when a self-defense theory is asserted.

The ruling came in an action filed by Michael DeCamp, who was held at the South Woods State Prison. Because he is a transsexual who has undergone breast implants, but has not completed the surgical process to change his physical gender, DeCamp claimed he was the subject of sexual harassment by prisoner Walter Keresty.

DeCamp had reported to a prison social worker and to Internal Affairs that Keresty had been harassing him. On September 1, 2005, DeCamp approached a guard and told him Keresty ?slammed his head into the concrete, and then tried to jam his tongue down his throat.? Both prisoners received a disciplinary infraction for fighting.

Keresty told guards the fight was staged to get DeCamp moved to another housing area. The hearing officer found Keresty was the aggressor and his actions were explicitly sexual in nature. Keresty received ten days detention, 180 days loss of commutation time, and 180 days of administrative segregation.

The Superior Court held that prison rules "must be reasonable and evenly applied." It then reviewed the few and conflicting decisions in other courts that weighed the question of a prisoner's right to self-defense when confronted with physical harm. The court spent considerable time examining Rowe v. DeBruyn, 17 F.3d 1047 (7th Cir. 1994).

The Rowe court held that penalogical objectives override a prisoner's right to self-defense, even if one existed. The Superior Court, however, found the dissent in Rowe to be more convincing. The Court agreed that to prohibit a prisoner from resisting a physical assault would ?leave the weak and the vulnerable the easy prey of the strong and vicious.?

As such, the Court held "that in cases charging an inmate with the prohibited act of fighting with another person, the hearing officer adjudicating the matter must carefully consider a proffer of self-defense, and if established, exonerate the individual charged with the infraction." When self-defense is an issue, specific findings must be made.

The Court recommended that the New Jersey Department of Corrections consider promulgating a regulation that addresses whether or not a prisoner may raise a theory of self-defense in a disciplinary action. Absent a regulation, the Court held the right exists. DeCamp's disciplinary infraction was therefore reversed. See: DeCamp v. New Jersey Department of Corrections, 386 N.J.Super. 631, 902 A.2d 357 (N.J. Super. A.D. 2006).

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Related legal case

DeCamp v. New Jersey Department of Corrections