Incarcerated people endure health care, safety problems in prisons, report says

By: - November 2, 2022 6:59 am

A state watchdog received more than 1,000 calls a month from inmates reporting abuse, theft, inadequate health care, and more at N.J. prisons. (Photo by Darrin Klimek | Getty Images)

People incarcerated in New Jersey’s prisons reported that staff assaulted them, ignored requests for medical care, and slapped them with false and retaliatory disciplinary charges for speaking out about prison problems, according to the first annual report from New Jersey’s new corrections watchdog.

Ombudsperson Terry Schuster said his office, which he took over in May after Gov. Phil Murphy expanded its scope in 2020, fielded an average of 1,034 requests a month for help in the past year from incarcerated people and their loved ones. Concerns about housing, property/money, health care, and outside communications sparked the most requests for help.

In total, the office handled 12,411 requests for help in the past year. That’s almost as many as the number of people incarcerated (12,745) in the state’s nine adult prisons.

More than half of the requests for help came from the state’s three largest prisons — South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton, Northern State Prison in Newark, and New Jersey State Prison in Trenton. But the most calls per person came from the troubled Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, where calls were nearly triple the average daily population there.

Incarcerated people asked for help with:

  • Health and mental health care. Some reported they got slow or no response to sick calls and care requests. Others said staff denied them needed assistive devices like wheelchairs, hearing aids, and glasses. Some reported their medication was provided late or in insufficient quantities, and they had trouble accessing specialists and COVID testing and treatment.
  • Safety and violence. Callers reported inappropriate touching during pat-downs, theft of property and food, contraband sales, and assaults, threats, and harassment from staff or other incarcerated people. Others reported slow or no response to requests for placement in protective custody or reassignment after assaults or cellmates’ aggression. Some claimed staff fabricated disciplinary charges if they voiced concerns to authorities.
  • Outside communications. Incarcerated people reported visitation problems, missing and undelivered mail, and technical troubles with telephones and JPay tablets and kiosks, which facilitate electronic communications with family and facility staff. Some alleged interference with confidential legal mail.

Where wrongdoing was alleged, Schuster’s office sent cases to the Department of Corrections’ special investigations division for follow-up, he said.

Dan Sperrazza, a department spokesman, said officials routinely review grievances and trends.

“We appreciate the ombudsperson feedback as the department continues to ensure that individuals leaving the custody of the department are better prepared to reenter society upon release,” Sperrazza said.

(Graphic courtesy of the Office of the Corrections Ombudsperson)

Schuster’s report, released Tuesday, outlines the office’s priorities for the next year. Topping the list is establishing operations away from the state Department of Corrections.

The office is supposed to serve as an independent watchdog of the system, but it uses departmental email and IT services, office space, and records storage, Schuster wrote in his report. That leaves its work “without adequate protection to ensure confidentiality and independence,” he wrote.

The office now employs 11 staff members, and Schuster aims to hire 10 more people by February to visit prisons more frequently to interview incarcerated people and monitor prison conditions.

Such changes should help the office better seek remedies and accountability for prison problems, Schuster wrote.

“Not regularly being in the places where people were held in custody reduced the office’s credibility in the eyes of incarcerated people and the public, curbed its access to information about conditions of confinement, and contributed to an environment in which abuse and victimization went unchecked,” Schuster wrote.

The office also aims to propose ways the system’s grievance system can improve its responses, because often, people who call the ombudsperson’s office for help do so because they got no help when seeking help from within the system, Schuster said.

“We have a call volume that’s really high and hard for us to stay on top of. A lot of people call us and get a busy signal, and that’s unfortunate,” Schuster told the New Jersey Monitor. “So we want to offer feedback about the grievance system to make sure it’s high-functioning and working well.”

In the coming year, Schuster said he plans to more deeply investigate and issue public reports on safety in prison, health care, incarcerated people’s access to loved ones, and “purposeful activity,” or how meaningful the time is that people spend behind bars.

Schuster and his staff will hold a virtual public listening session Friday afternoon. To tune in, register here. They aim to hold in-person public meetings around the state over the coming year.

To reach the ombudsperson’s office, email [email protected] or send mail to Office of the Corrections Ombudsperson, P.O. Box 855, Trenton, NJ 08625. By phone, incarcerated people can call 555-555-5555 from any phone in prison, people in halfway houses can call 800-305-1811, families can call 888-909-3244, and the main office is at 609-633-2596.


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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.