TRENTON – Democrats on a Senate panel today said it was too early to determine what remedial actions they would recommend to avert a recurrence of the violent, gang-related disturbance at Bayside State Prison on New Year’s Day.
“We have to hear more from the corrections officers, sort out the conflicting testimony and get the findings of the law enforcement investigators before we can recommend remedies,” said Senator John A. Girgenti, Chairman of the Senate Law, Public Safety and Veterans Affairs Committee.
The panel heard several hours of testimony from Corrections Commissioner Devon Brown and Corrections Department officials who described the Bayside incident as a spontaneous outburst by as few as four inmates which was promptly quelled by authorities.
But a far harsher picture of the incident was described by Troy B. Ferus, President of the New Jersey State Corrections Officers Association, and a trio of legislators from the Bayside prison area – Senators Nicholas Asselta and Stephen M. Sweeney and Assemblyman Jeff Van Drew.
“Based on what I was told, it was an absolute disaster at Bayside,” said Senator Sweeney.
More than two dozen corrections officers were reportedly injured in the fracas and nearly as many inmates, many professed members of the Bloods gang, were transferred out of Bayside to the tighter security environment at Trenton State Prison, authorities said shortly after the incident.
“There’s clearly a discrepancy that has to be worked out, but that can be resolved by the Prosecutor’s Office,” said Senator Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen, Essex and Passaic. “The testimony showed a clear need for more training and protective equipment for the officers.”
The Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office is continuing its probe of the incident.
Senator Nicholas Sacco, D-Bergen and Passaic, and a panel member, said he believes written accounts by the Department of Corrections and the corrections officers should be submitted to the committee.
Senator Girgenti said additional testimony from corrections officers would be taken at the panel’s next meeting on Feb. 28th.
Senator Girgenti had called the hearing to assess the problems of gangs within the State Prison system and to determine what steps should be taken to ensure that corrections officers have a safe working environment.
But the focus remained on the incident at Bayside, particularly after Commissioner Brown’s lengthy testimony created a time problem and foreclosed the panel’s ability to hear more than a dozen other people who wanted to testify.
State police intelligence and gang experts did testify that gang activity was at a heightened level within the state prison system and Brown conceded there were an estimated 4,000 confirmed and suspected gang members throughout the prison system in New Jersey.
Assemblyman Craig Stanley, D-Essex, also testified in defense of Commissioner Brown’s professionalism and recognized expertise in the corrections community.