Prison homicide shines light on inmate deaths

Deaths behind bars are rising in N.J., mostly due to illness

By: - December 12, 2022 6:48 am

Investigators are probing the Nov. 21, 2022, beating death of a man who was in custody at Bayside State Prison in Leesburg. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)

An inmate just one day away from freedom who was allegedly beaten to death in his cell last month was one of 48 who have died in New Jersey state prisons this year.

The number represents a sharp increase from 2021, when 39 people died behind bars, but it’s down from 100 in 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to state Department of Corrections spokeswoman Amy Z. Quinn.

Since early 2017, 322 people have died in state prisons, Quinn added.

The deaths are largely due to a graying prison population and an increase in the number of incarcerated people with acute, complex medical needs, Quinn said. She did not provide a breakdown of causes of the deaths.

More people are dying while incarcerated nationally too.

The Prison Policy Institute found that deaths in state prisons rose 41% from 2001 to 2018, even though the state prison population only grew by 1% during the same period. The leading cause by far is illness and “natural causes,” followed by suicide, overdose, and homicide, the group’s analysis showed.

More than 3,850 people died nationwide in state prisons or private prison facilities under a state contract in 2019, according to the most recent numbers reported by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The latest inmate to die in New Jersey was Martin Sanchez, 41, who was found unresponsive and injured in his cell at Bayside State Prison in Leesburg on Nov. 21. First responders declared him dead, according to Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae.

Quinn referred questions about Sanchez’s death to Webb-McRae, who said the case remains under investigation. Criminal charges have not yet been filed.

Sanchez, who had been in custody for an Essex County theft case since July 2021, was scheduled to be released the day after he was killed.

He died just a few days after a former state correctional officer at Bayside, John Makos, pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy charges for allegedly assaulting inmates — and allowing inmates to assault each other — for actual or perceived violations of prison rules and customs between April and December 2019.

Those assaults occurred in the prison’s kitchen in areas out of sight of surveillance cameras, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. In one incident, Makos watched and didn’t intervene when multiple inmates pinned another to the floor and punched him about 25 times — and didn’t report the attack to supervisors or medical staff as required, according to the office. Makos faces up to 10 years in prison when he’s sentenced in March.

Prison workers were not involved in Sanchez’s assault, and a correctional officer tried unsuccessfully to revive him, said William Sullivan, president of New Jersey Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local 105, which represents correctional officers.

State data shows that assaults on incarcerated people committed by other inmates aren’t uncommon in the system. At least 155 have been reported so far this year, up from 108 last year and the most in at least five years, state data shows.

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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.