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New Jersey Prison Supervisory Officials Found Liable for Prisoner Abuse Claims

Three prison officials were found liable in abuse claims stemming from a month-long lockdown at Bayside State Prison following the killing of prison guard Frederick Baker in 1997, according to former federal judge John W. Bissell, named as Special Master by the U.S. District Court of New Jersey to investigate 200 allegations of abuse. Bissell’s conclusion, reached after extensive fact-finding and review of the prisoners’ complaints, was entered in April 2010.

Previously, federal juries awarded three Bayside prisoners monetary damages totaling more than $300,000, and in the past year Bissell awarded 23 other prisoners an additional $117,000, all of which must be paid by the State of New Jersey. [See: PLN, Feb. 2005, p.28; Nov. 2003, p.10].

In his April 2010 report, Bissell determined that “William Fauver, Gary Hilton and Scott Faunce bear supervisory liability for the claims proven before me resulting from the lockdown at Bayside State Prison for the period July 30, 1997 through September 3, 1997.” Bissell further wrote that he was “satisfied that the lockdown at Bayside, both as designed and thereafter implemented, violated the Eighth Amendment rights of inmates.... The lockdown and all ... its features was indeed a ‘policy or practice [which] created an unreasonable risk of ... Eighth Amendment injury.’”

Shortly after the 1ockdown began, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that prisoners claimed they had been mistreated by a Special Operations Group (SOG) consisting of 57 guards from across New Jersey who initially interrogated them and searched their cells for weapons. The guards were decked out in full riot gear, carried batons and mace, and did not wear name badges. According to the Inquirer, prisoners reported they were “threatened with dogs, and paraded through a gauntlet of SOG officers who beat them with nightsticks.” As stated by Bissell, “no persuasive evidence in the record before me has established that the lockdown as designed and continued was necessary for that penalogica1 purpose.”

“Once the isolated nature of [the] attack [on Baker] ... was clear, a full lockdown with SOG’s intimidating presence was not only unnecessary, but dangerous to the safety and well-being of the inmates. It must be remembered that, for the most part, the inmates at Bayside had either medium or minimum [security] status with freedom of movement, unescorted, throughout the grounds, for their duties and activities,” Bissell added.

“The presence of SOG, and particularly its autonomy and virtual immunity from meaningful scrutiny or discipline, exacerbated the risks exponentially ... by the very nature of the SOG deployment, there was an inherent and obvious potential for abuse of the rights of inmates ... [that] enhanced the atmosphere of tension, unrest, uncertainty and thus danger to inmates.”

Bissell also noted that SOG personnel threatened prisoners against whom they had perpetrated assaults with additional beatings if they made any complaints to either medical or administrative staff. According to Bissell, “these threats, eminently foreseeable by those who deployed the SOGs to Bayside, further imperiled the health of inmates by dissuading them from seeking necessary medical attention, ... and effectively rendered any administrative remedy process ‘unavailable’ at Bayside to injured inmates.”

The monetary judgments awarded to Bayside prisoners by Bissell and federal juries are not the only expenses incurred by the State of New Jersey as a result of the lockdown at the prison. According to Peter Aseltin, a spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office, almost $4 million has been paid to private lawyers for defense work related to those cases. Further, the district court has granted attorney fees of more than $80,000 to the prisoners’ counsel since 2004.

Around 30 more prisoner claims related to the Bayside lockdown are still pending, and 10 prisoners have elected to go to trial. The case remains ongoing. See: In re Bayside Prison Litigation, U.S.D.C. (D.N.J.), Case No. 1:97-cv-05127-RBK-JS.

Additional sources:, Philadelphia Inquirer

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Related legal case

In re Bayside Prison Litigation