More brutality at Essex Jail: Will the feds come to the rescue? | Editorial

Published: Dec. 13, 2021

At Essex County Jail earlier this month, a 27-year-old pretrial detainee was stabbed by a fellow inmate with a sharpened metal rod, sent back to his cell – not to a hospital – and died the next day.

This travesty follows a horrific beating of another inmate in September, with a video that recently surfaced showing a 22-year-old with schizophrenia, who clearly didn’t belong in a unit with violent criminals. A gang of inmates stomped on his face over and over, then slammed two microwave ovens onto his head as he lay helpless, with no guards in sight for at least two minutes, leaving him on the verge of death.

Both cases show a colossal failure of security. The 22-year-old, Jayshawn Boyd, should never have been placed into “a designated gang unit,” a lawyer for his family says. And the jail’s staff didn’t respond quickly enough to intervene.

And in the stabbing death, the burning question is why the victim was returned to his cell, apparently with unchecked internal bleeding. Why was he not taken to a hospital immediately?

We are still awaiting the results of investigations, but it seems clear these men deserved better protection. And the problem goes way beyond these two cases, reflecting serious systemic problems at the jail, according to data obtained by the union for this jail’s supervisors.

In the first six months of this year, at least 21 corrections officers were assaulted, sending 14 of them to the emergency room, the records from the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 106 show. In July, at least six officers were assaulted, one of whom required reconstructive surgery of his face.

The use of force against inmates is skyrocketing as well, more than tripling from 2019 to 2020, and rising again this year. Another sign of worsening violence is the 70 percent increase in emergency ambulance dispatches from University Hospital in Newark to the prison between January and June this year.

The defense from county officials has been that the jail has sufficient staff, follows protocols and meets national standards, as if nothing is wrong. That’s absurd, given the documented violence.

“Think about it – what if that was your family member?” said Nafeesah Goldsmith of New Jersey Prison Watch, whose younger sister died in Cumberland County Jail at the age of 29.

At a protest in Newark last week, she held a two minute and 23-second moment of silence to reflect not only on the savagery of the Boyd attack, but the duration of the video showing the assault dragging on, without intervention: “That’s a long time for someone to be waiting for help,” she said.

Boyd’s family, which attended the demonstration, says that for three days the jail didn’t even tell them where he was. His mother was forced to call hospitals on her own, thinking he might have had another mental breakdown. That’s how the family found him, in a coma and on life support at University Hospital.

Whatever protocol this jail is following, it’s not working. Comprehensive reform, top to bottom, is clearly needed. The Attorney General’s Office is looking at only one of these latest cases, leaving the Boyd beating aside because he is still breathing, and policy calls for investigations only in the case of death. That’s ridiculous. And the investigation by Essex prosecutors, while welcome, is not enough. They are part of the home team, investigating their own.

Essex officials have also hired a private firm led by retired Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose to review all operations at the jail. Ambrose, an effective police chief during a period of important progress in Newark, has a good track record, and the task here would be to take a tough and independent look at this regardless of the political fallout. That’s welcome, but the danger of internal reviews is that they, too, can pull punches. Who can forget the Mastro report, which was supposed to be an independent investigation of Bridgegate by a law firm selected by Chris Christie? It turned out to be a farcical and expensive defense of Christie’s team.

This calls for an investigation by the new U.S. Attorney, Philip Sellinger. The Department of Justice is responsible for enforcing civil rights laws, as it did at Rikers jail, for instance. And the DOJ has the needed expertise, and a track record of tough and independent reviews, like the one it did of the Newark Police.

Protestors agree that a federal investigation at Essex Jail is needed, and vow that they will not allow this to drop, with another demonstration planned this month. “We are sticking to this,” Goldsmith said. It’s not enough to bring the attackers to justice, and leave vulnerable people to fend for themselves in custody.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-12-14 03:28:18 -0800