TRENTON – Senator John A. Girgenti, the Chairman of the Senate Law, Public Safety and Veterans Affairs Committee, said today’s testimony from corrections officers has convinced him that inmate gangs and inadequate security created a “deadly dangerous situation” at the New Year’s Day inmate uprising at Bayside State Prison.
“The officers told vivid, first-hand accounts of vicious assaults by a significant number of inmates which painted a far more dangerous situation than conveyed by the Department of Corrections,” said Senator Girgenti, D-Bergen and Passaic. “Something has to be done to ensure that these conditions don’t recur.”
Senator Girgenti said it now appears “unreasonable” to accept the Department’s estimate that only four inmates were involved in a fracas that required more than two dozen corrections officers to seek medical attention, some with serious injuries that will require further surgery.
“We want to protect officers on the front lines of a potentially deadly, daily work situation,” said Senator Girgenti. “Inmate gang leaders can now provoke increasingly violent incidents by just shouting out a few code words. The potential for more incidents continues to threaten the safety of officers at Bayside.”
The corrections officers maintained that Corrections Commisisoner Devon Brown limited the “official” number of inmate participants in the uprising to four because more than that would have constituted a “riot.”
The officers said further that Brown downplayed the seriousness of the uprising to avoid greater official scrutiny of his department which several officers said is “out of touch” with the daily problems confronted in state correctional facilities. The officers also appealed to members of the committee to protect them from retaliation for their testimony today.
The hearing was the second on the Bayside uprising after an initial hearing was dominated by officials from the department.
Afterwards, Senator Girgenti said it is premature for the committee to offer final corrective measures, but he said it was clear that mandatory training on gang activities for corrections officers was necessary.
“It’s appalling that everyone admits that gangs are a problem, but these officers say they have never had any training in dealing with gangs,” said Senator Girgenti.
He also said he was concerned by testimony that the dormitory-type facilities at Bayside made it easier to launch an inmate attack.
“What’s cheaper may not be safe enough,” said Senator Girgenti.
One female African-American officer said she was the target of the inmate attack, but was off work on the day of the uprising. She said officers were attacked based “not on the color of their skin, but on the color of their uniforms.”
Senator Girgenti said in addition to corrective legislation to require more training in gang activities, the panel may ask the State Commission of Investigation to probe the widely divergent accounts of the inmate uprising.
“We want to get to the truth and the SCI has subpoena power,” he said.
Senators Nicholas Sacco and Paul Sarlo, two other Democratic members of the panel joined Senator Girgenti in saying they would find it intolerable if there were any departmental reprisals against the officers who testified at today’s hearing.