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Old 03-26-2004, 08:03 AM
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Default Report discounts abuse allegations at prison

Inmates at Bayside State alleged beatings after a guard was killed in 1997. A probe cited only "unprofessional conduct."

By Troy Graham
Inquirer Staff Writer

A state investigation has found no evidence to support allegations that guards at South Jersey's Bayside State Prison beat inmates after the 1997 stabbing death of a corrections officer there.

A 31-page report released yesterday focused on accusations made by inmates and corrections employees in a civil lawsuit, newspaper articles and a television documentary.

The 11-month investigation, ordered by Attorney General Peter Harvey, found some "unprofessional conduct" - including racially offensive remarks by guards - but concluded that the allegations of abuse and a cover-up were unfounded.

"The only serious injury that occurred at Bayside State Prison was the fatal blow dealt to Officer Fred Baker," state Department of Corrections Commissioner Devon Brown said in a statement.

Bayside, a medium-security prison of nearly 1,200 inmates in Cumberland County, was locked down for a month after an inmate stabbed Baker with a makeshift knife in July 1997. No visitors were allowed, inmates were kept in their cells, and mail and phone privileges were curtailed.

Once the lockdown was lifted, inmates began reporting beatings and other abuses to the Department of Corrections, the news media, and such agencies as the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union.

More than three dozen inmates told The Inquirer that they had been forced to walk through a gauntlet of guards in riot gear who beat them with nightsticks.

Federal and state investigations, as well as an internal inquiry, found no wrongdoing at the time. The internal investigation found "some of the abuse was caused by inmate-to-inmate confrontations in order to falsely implicate DOC staff."

Harvey ordered another investigation last year after new allegations were made in news reports and in a civil suit filed on behalf of inmates. Investigators from the Office of Government Integrity and the Division of Criminal Justice handled the inquiry.

State Sen. John H. Adler, (D., Camden), cochairman of the Judiciary Committee, also called on the attorney general to address the issue. Adler said yesterday that he had not read the report and could not say if the findings would be the last word on the controversy.

More than 250 inmates are suing the prison, but the report noted that 300 other prisoner suits had been dismissed. A judge denied a motion for class-action status, ordering the remaining cases to be tried individually. The first is scheduled to go to trial in federal court in Camden in May.

Justin T. Loughry, one of the lawyers representing the inmates, said yesterday that he too had not seen the report, but was not surprised by its findings.

"When the state investigates itself, it's like someone being a judge in his own case. It's not really a reliable outcome," he said. "They want to get to a result and say there's nothing there."

The report focuses heavily on the case of Frederick Walker, an inmate who says a team of guards beat him as he was moved from his cell to the infirmary. Guards videotaped the transfer, but there is a gap in the tape. The guard who manned the camera said the battery died and had to be replaced. Walker said he was beaten for 30 minutes while the camera was off.

The tape also shows Walker, who was stripped naked and shackled, being taken down a flight of stairs. The report said he was caught on a stair and an officer "placed his foot under Mr. Walker's buttock and pushed him in order to dislodge him from the step."

Loughry said the tape, which has been collected for the civil suit, shows the officer kicking Walker and knocking him face-first down the stairs.

The report said Walker had been combative and covered himself in an oily substance to make it harder for guards to grip him. He had to be maced and subdued by several guards, but was not beaten or injured, the report said.

Medical staff at the prison did not note any injuries to Walker except for a scratch on a toe and the effects of the mace, the report said.

An analysis of the tape by a law enforcement official with expertise in video technology found that the tape had not been turned off, but it was impossible to determine if the camera's battery had died.

The officer manning the camera told investigators that he waited until the guards transferring Walker were looking away to change the battery and he was certain none of them noticed. The officer said he filed a report, as required, but the Department of Corrections cannot find that report.

The investigation also addressed the alleged beating of Wilbert Jones, who told the New York Times last year that he was beaten for no reason while working in a kitchen area. He said a guard he knew stopped the assault. Another guard, Officer Helen Artis, confirmed the story for the newspaper.

The state's report said Walker had become "highly aggressive and started throwing milk crates at... windows." A team was called to subdue him, the report said.

The officer whom Jones said he knew, Sgt. Robert Blount, told investigators that he is related to Jones. Jones' mother "asked him to falsely testify for her son," Blount said. He said Jones was not beaten or abused.

The report also discounts the word of former guard Ali Mesghali, who told the Times about beatings, because he was fired for accidentally stabbing an inmate and then bribing him with food from McDonald's to keep quiet.

Jesse Surillo-Rojas, who was an ombudsman at the prison, has given sworn testimony that she suspected inmates were being abused, Loughry said. The report, though, said she was referring to "the failure to provide nutritious hot meals, the constant searching of cells, and the displacement of personal belongings" during the lockdown.

Maggie Aguero, the head ombudsman at the time of the lockdown, has said in depositions that she took concerns about abuse to the warden and talked of the "blue wall of silence" among the guards, Loughry said.

Aguero told state investigators that ombudsmen collected information and filed reports, but that inmates would not provide specifics. The report said Aguero was frustrated by the handling of ombudsmen reports, and believes "acts of abuse were occurring despite the absence of specific facts."

Later in the report, however, it said Aguero "felt most inmate complaints were dealt with in a satisfactory manner." Investigators also asked her why no acts of violence against inmates were reported at the time of the lockdown.

"It is just the way of life in the prison system," she said. "The inmates would lose credibility within their circle, and the ombudsmen staff would lose credibility with the inmates."

Contact staff writer Troy Graham at 856-779-3893 or tgraham@phillynews.com .

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