He Went to Jail on Minor Charges. He Left in a Coma.

Jayshawn Boyd, 22, pictured with his mother in July, was badly beaten as he was awaiting sentencing at the Essex County jail in Newark.
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NEWARK — Jayshawn Boyd, a 22-year-old with schizophrenia, does not remember the brutal jail attack that left him in a coma for more than two months.

His mother, Nacolia Boyd, said she intended to wait until he regained more strength to tell him all the details about the beating by fellow detainees at the Essex County jail in Newark and the long road ahead to what his family hopes is a full recovery.

“He’s making little words,” his father, Shawn Bouknight, said, “talking a little bit.”

The Sept. 23 attack was stunning in its viciousness and duration.

In surveillance video of the assault shared last month on social media, seven men in a jail day room are shown knocking Mr. Boyd to the floor and stomping his head. One by one, they return to pummel him with their fists, a microwave, a water cooler, a broom and an industrial bucket filled with bleach during an attack that continues well after Mr. Boyd appears to lose consciousness.

Severe brain injury has left him unable to walk or eat solid food on his own, his mother said, and has damaged his short-term memory. Each of the men in the video has been charged with attempted murder.

The beating, which is under investigation by county prosecutors, lasted at least two minutes and 11 seconds without any intervention by guards, according to a copy of the footage obtained by The New York Times.

“There’s got to be accountability,” said a lawyer for the family, Brooke M. Barnett, who has filed a claim in advance of an expected lawsuit. “Something’s not right over there.”

Two years into a pandemic that raced largely unchecked through tightly packed correctional facilities across the country, staff shortages at state prisons and county jails have intensified, leading to mandatory overtime and alarming gaps in security at places like Rikers Island in New York City.

Sixteen people have died this year within New York’s correction system, mainly on Rikers, and the city is moving ahead with plans to shut down the notorious complex and replace it with smaller community-based lockups. In Philadelphia, with a jail population one-third the size of New York’s, there have been 18 deaths this year, according to the Pennsylvania Prison Society.

“It should not be possible for someone to kill another human being in a jail,” said Claire Shubik-Richards, executive director of the society, one of the country’s oldest criminal justice advocacy organizations. “You have layers of security, in theory, and eyes everywhere.”

“And it should be really impossible,” she added, “to kill yourself.”

New York plans to close six prisons early next year as the number of people incarcerated in the state continues to decline. New Jersey has closed three, and the governor announced in June that he intended to shut down the state’s only prison for women after a midnight raid by guards left several women with serious injuries; the violence, which was caught on video, came a year after the Justice Department released a damning report that detailed an entrenched culture of sexual violence by guards there.

Because of drops in the detainee population, several of New Jersey’s 21 counties have also moved to close their jails and instead pay to house detainees awaiting trial or sentencing at nearby facilities

The pandemic has added its own complications. To reduce crowding and slow the spread of the coronavirus, roughly 700 people were quickly freed from New Jersey jails.

Legislation later enabled the release of 2,258 inmates from prisons the day after the 2020 presidential election in one of the largest-ever single-day reductions of any state’s prison population. Since then, nearly 3,000 additional people have been granted early release through the emergency initiative, reducing New Jersey’s prison population by 32 percent since 2018, Gov. Philip D. Murphy’s first year in office.

At the same time, resignations and retirements among guards have increased, according to unions representing prison and jail officers. The unions attribute the attrition rate to pandemic-related fatigue, shifting attitudes toward law enforcement and restrictions in the use of solitary confinement as punishment for infractions, which they believe has contributed to an uptick in violence, including detainees throwing bodily fluids at guards.

It is unclear if staffing levels played a role in the delayed response to Mr. Boyd’s assault — the first of at least two serious recent attacks by detainees at the Essex County Correctional Facility.

Another spasm of violence came on Dec. 3, when Dan Milford Gelin, 27, died after being stabbed by another detainee, prosecutors said. A fellow prisoner has been charged with murder, and the county prosecutor’s office and the state attorney general are investigating his death. Mr. Gelin’s family referred all questions to their lawyer.

The next day, Essex County administrators announced that a private consulting firm had been hired to conduct a “comprehensive assessment” of the lockup.

“We need a fresh set of eyes to review our policies and standards,” the county executive, Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr., said in a statement.

All the consultants named in a news release announcing the inquiry are retired law enforcement officials, leading prison justice advocates to question its validity and to call for an independent federal civil rights investigation into the recent violence.

“We don’t need another damn task force,” Nafeesah Goldsmith, a chairwoman of New Jersey Prison Justice Watch, said at a demonstration held to denounce the attack on Mr. Boyd. “We need all who stayed silent to be removed.”

A spokesman for New Jersey’s U.S. attorney’s office had no comment.

Leaders of the union that represents supervisors at the Essex County jail said that administrators and county officials had ignored repeated warnings that the facility was growing increasingly violent.

Paramedics or emergency medical technicians were called to the jail 169 times between January and June to treat either officers or detainees, up from 99 times during the same period last year, according to documents released by the union, the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 106.

Violence and resignations have also increased in state prisons, according to William Sullivan, president of a separate union that represents 6,000 New Jersey correction officers, the Police Benevolent Association, Local 105. About 450 officers resign each year, Mr. Sullivan said, and the pipeline for training new guards has slowed drastically.

“You’re seeing a lot more people leave sooner,” he said.

The Essex County jail, a green-sided, low-hung facility, sits in an industrial area of Newark. After years of protests by activists, county leaders decided this spring to stop holding undocumented immigrants awaiting court hearings at the jail, ending a lucrative, yearslong contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The lockup has held an average of 2,199 detainees each month over the last year, roughly 240 people fewer than the facility’s legal capacity, county officials said.

Most people in New Jersey’s jails are awaiting trial and presumed innocent, or have been sentenced to terms less than a year. The facilities are run by county administrators, and some have shut down operations as the number of detainees declined after New Jersey effectively eliminated its system of cash bail, enabling most people to wait for their day in court at home, not in jail.

As part of a cost-saving initiative, Union County — where Mr. Boyd lives and where he was charged with two altercations involving family members — has been paying Essex County to hold its detainees since July. (The population of the Union County jail had dropped 67 percent in 10 years, according to the county, and it expects to save $103 million over five years by closing down most of its jail operations.)

With a documented history of schizophrenia, Mr. Boyd was one of the estimated 10 to 25 percent of incarcerated people nationwide who suffer from serious mental illnesses in facilities poorly equipped to tend to their needs.

Last year, after being arrested on charges that stemmed from incidents with his family at their home in Elizabeth, N.J., he was transferred from the Essex County jail to a psychiatric hospital and later released. He was set to plead guilty to the charges — criminal mischief and unlawful possession of a knife — but missed sentencing, leading to a warrant for his arrest.

When he turned himself in, he was sent back to jail and placed in a traditional housing unit — a decision his lawyer and parents question, given his mental health history.

“It has taken something as brutal as this to expose the real dangers of what’s really going on behind these four walls,” Ms. Barnett said.

Mr. Boyd’s family is hopeful that he will recover fully once he is healthy enough to leave a rehabilitation center.

“He’s a fighter,” Ms. Boyd said. “They didn’t think he was going to make it this far.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-12-28 03:40:28 -0800