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Indefinite Confinement of New Jersey Prisoner for 1990 Assault Overturned

The Appellate division of New Jersey’s Superior Court has held that the New Jersey Department of Corrections ( NJDOC), “does not have the legal authority to continue to keep” a prisoner who has been in confinement for twenty years “indefinitely confined in the Management Control Unit (MCU).”

The ruling came in an action filed by prisoner Keith Bowman, who is serving a 30 year sentence for murder. He landed in MCU in 1990 after he and six other prisoners “violently attacked and injured seven unarmed” guards at the New Jersey State Prison. Although Bowman was acquitted of criminal charges, he was found guilty of disciplinary infractions for “assaulting any person,” and “possession or introduction of a weapon, such as, but not limited to, a sharpened instrument, knife or unauthorized tool.”

The NJDOC’s investigation into the assault incident also revealed that Bowman was a member of the Afrikan National Ujamma (Afrikan), a terrorist organization dedicated “to causing chaos, disruption, and the elimination of staff” within the prison system.

While on MCU status from 1998 to 2009, Bowman has completed anger management, behavior modification, and substance abuse programs. A prison social worker found he had adequate adjustment and a psychologist reported no problems or complaints. Despite that evidence, the Management Control Unit Review Committee (MCURC) continued Bowman on MCU because his “actions continue to pose a threat to the safety and security of any correctional facility.” That decision was based “primarily, if not, entirely,” on the 1990 incident, wrote the court.

Bowman sought review of the MCURC decision with the prison administrator, who must consider “whether the decision of the MCURC was based on substantial evidence,” and “whether the decision was appropriate to the inmate’s case.”

The Court found that Bowman had demonstrated his “participation and compliance” of the criteria from [NJAC 10A:5-2.11(b)], which required the prisoner show his participation in programs, complied with MCURC criteria, remained disciplinary infraction free, and affirm adherence to prison rules.

That shifted the burden to prison officials to demonstrate Bowman remained an identifiable threat to the safety of others, of damage or destruction to property, or of interfering with prison security or operations. At the time of the MCURC review, there was no justification for the arbitrary and capricious “finding that the 1990 incident and subsequent rule violations required indefinite confinement,” held the court.

It further held the Administrator improperly considered a disciplinary infraction occurring after the MCURC’s review to uphold its decision, for regulators do not allow such consideration. The NJDOC’s decision to continue Bowman’s MCU status was reversed. See: Bowman v. New Jersey Department of Corrections, No. A-3783-08T3 NJ Superior Court, Appellate Div.

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Related legal case

Bowman v. New Jersey Department of Corrections