Girgenti Statement: Bayside Incident Spurs Reform Initiatives

My recommendations – in the aftermath of the violence at Bayside State Prison – call for enhanced training of corrections officers, system-wide improvements in communications and a required facilities review after every future prison incident involving a death or serious injury.

What became clear after two hearings on the incident by the Senate Law, Public Safety and Veterans Affairs Committee is that officers need more training in dealing with gangs and in containing violent inmate outbursts that are either planned or spontaneous.

I am moving forward today with three pieces of legislation which I believe respond to immediate needs to improve the operations of our correctional facilities. I am confident these proposals will gain significant bipartisan support both in committee and on the senate floor.

As Chairman of the committee, I want to thank the members of the panel who devoted long hours to assessing the many conflicting accounts of that dark New Year’s Day uprising at Bayside. I hope my colleagues share my belief that we can serve the needs of our citizen taxpayers best by increasing protections for our officers, maintaining order within the system and creating a culture for correcting our mistakes.

To the families of many of the professional officers injured that day, it matters little whether some official report on a shelf somewhere lists it as a riot or just a disturbance. A choice of terms doesn’t heal the serious wounds of their loved ones any faster.

But what I hope does improve the working conditions and the safety of our officers is the first of three bills I am introducing today – a measure to require the Corrections Commissioner to study the site of any serious violent outburst by inmates to determine if any “structural, operational or administrative” deficiencies contributed to the disturbance.

If anyone is killed or seriously injured or if inmates are charged with riot, the requirement for a facilities review would be triggered.

Within six months of the disturbance, the Commissioner would be required to identify any needed improvements at the particular prison, inform the Governor and the Legislature and include the cost as a line item in the Department’s next budget request.

The second bill I am introducing today would require the Commissioner of Corrections to implement a continuing education program for officers at adult facilities.

This training – to be structured in consultation with the police training commission – would include the use of force and firearms, self-defense, proper searches of inmates, gang awareness and recruitment of terrorists.

Despite conflicting testimony at our hearings, the pervasive influence of gangs at our correctional facilities was recognized by all. The ability of our officers to know gang symbols and to fathom the culture of gang relationships within an institution must be beyond conjecture. Mandatory training in a wide spectrum of topics will enhance security and improve relationships with inmates.

The third bill I present today would require the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections to implement a voice mail system so officers can detail shift activities involving inmates to the following work shift. This measure was recommended by officers as a critical means of improving safety by pinpointing potential prison hot spots for incoming shifts at the moment they arrive for work. The voice mail system would be designed to improve the current practice of supervisory personnel communicating important information to line officers throughout their shifts. Several years ago, budgetary constraints eliminated overtime allotments for shift overlaps where important information was communicated. The voice mail telecommunications system would mirror the communications model currently used in federal prisons.

These three bills mark my initial response to the hearings held by the committee over several hours. Some aspects of the Bayside incident are best remedied in other venues. Any crimes should be subjected to the full scrutiny of the Cumberland County prosecutor’s office. Critical labor issues involving the working conditions of our officers should be resolved through vigorous collective bargaining. And existing agencies should never be discouraged in their efforts to guarantee the fundamental constitutional rights of inmates.

In crafting these bills, I would be remiss if I did not express my gratitude for the input provided by the Office of Legislative Services, the Senate staff, my colleagues on the Senate Law, Public Safety and Veterans Affairs committee and the New Jersey State Corrections Association.

I look forward to an open expression of opinion on these bills in committee with hopes that they are advanced in a timely, bipartisan manner.

In passing, I feel compelled to comment that the testimony concerning the Bayside incident revealed the residential inmate trailers to be combustible opportunities for mayhem. Their close quarters with multiple beds, their inclusion of household items like irons which can easily be converted to lethal weapons and their convenience for passing on information among inmates make them breeding grounds for violence and disorder.

I strongly urge the Department to pursue alternatives to trailers in their long-range planning commitments to ensure greater safety for our officers and enhanced overall security at all of our correctional facilities.

In that regard, I would like to commend the Codey administration for including a $4 million appropriation in the proposed state budget to help replace trailers with more secure inmate residency facilities.

Thank you.

CLICK HERE TO READ SENATOR GIRGENTI’S NEWS RELEASE ON THE BAYSIDE PRISON BILLS

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